Nevada City, Calif. — YOU wouldn't mistake Michael Killigrew for a peacenik. The beard is too neatly trimmed, the jacket and tie too conventional, the mid-Atlantic accent too rapid-fire. Even his cramped one-room office - the front parlor of a red clapboard house in this once-famous gold-rush town in the Sierra foothills - is a businesslike operation, complete with an Apple computer, a world map, and one of his own landscapes on the wall. Yet his message - a simple one of international peace through communication among teen-agers - has struck a responsive chord. It's led him to found an organization, Direct Connection, which claims some 2,000 chapters in American high schools. It's flooded him with letters from Soviet youths. It's already brought him, and a group of students, into a face-to-face meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Soviet Embassy during the December 1987 summit in Washington - and to a meeting last month at the White House with Ronald Reagan.
And this week it has taken him to Helsinki for a week-long conference during which about 35 American high school students - representing 18 states, and including two from the Hopi nation in Arizona - will meet a similar number of their Soviet counterparts.
The goal of the Helsinki meeting, Mr. Killigrew said in an interview before he left, is for these two groups to ``translate their common vision of the future into an agenda for the 21st century.'' Out of that, he says, will come ``maybe half a dozen very specific, very concrete, simple, straightforward, doable proposals which they then present to Mr. Gorbachev, to Reagan, and to [United Nations Secretary-General Javier] P'erez de Cu'ellar.''
Pie in the sky? Not at all. President Reagan has already scheduled a meeting with the full US-Soviet student delegation in the Rose Garden May 16 - after the group's return from Moscow (where plans are afoot for a second meeting with Gorbachev) but before their meeting in New York with the UN Secretary-General.
How does a group of students come to command the attention of world leaders?
Killigrew can point to some logical explanations: the growing rapprochement between the superpowers, the concern among youth around the world about nuclear weaponry, the increasing number of exchange programs in operation. But he candidly admits that the driving force has been far more intuitive than rational.
``This has been an operation of faith from the beginning,'' he says, noting that, since the idea first began to jell in 1983, he's had ``a very strong feeling of inner guidance - you can call that divine guidance if you will.''
Killigrew has circled through agnosticism, atheism, and Eastern mysticism - on his way back, he says, to Christianity. What he has learned is that faith is based on a deep reality - and that despite the world's menu of wars, nuclear threats, and environmental degradation, ``that reality is love.''
``It's as simple as that,'' he explains. ``And it's so extraordinary that here we are at the end of the 20th century, with this enormous technological sophistication, with real knowledge of our past, with this enormous potential in every direction - and that it should now, in 1988, come down to this very simple proposition: We either learn to love each other, or we die.''
That love, however, doesn't mean peace at any price - a lesson Killigrew learned as a child during the Nazi occupation in Holland, where his father was a member of the Dutch resistance. He describes the goal of his group as communication. That, he says, leads to understanding, which in turn leads to peace. ``To talk about peace first,'' he explains, ``is to put the cart before the horse.''
As a result of this stand, Direct Connection has had to fight off overtures from other groups - like the Moscow-based Soviet Peace Committee - that would like to co-opt its efforts. ``We're not interested in association with any group whose principal agenda has such a strong emphasis on peace up front, because I don't think it's real. There's an element of Pollyanna in that.'' Peacemaking, he says, ``has to be preceded by a number of other steps.''
Now, after five years of full-time volunteer effort - supported in part by Killigrew's wife, Tove, a chairmaker - Killigrew and Direct Connection are at a crossroads. Sending the American delegation to the Helsinki conference, he estimates, will cost about $200,000. Half that amount has been raised by the 35 students in their local communities. As for the balance, Killigrew says he has been ``madly fund raising.'' He admits he will soon have to find a way to compensate himself and his one full-time volunteer staff member.
Will success spoil Direct Connection? Killigrew, aware of the dangers, also knows the value of establishing the organization on more than a hand-to-mouth basis. He is about to enter into a contract with the New York advertising firm of Young & Rubicam, hoping to develop a worldwide advertising and public-relations campaign that could lead to major corporate support. His fund-raising goal: $5 million, which he says would allow an international (rather than bilateral) conference to convene every other year, with scholarships allowing students from poorer countries to attend.
Wherever it takes him, however, Killigrew wants the focus kept on the students themselves. ``They can really communicate with each other and come from the heart,'' he says, ``much more easily than we can.''
He sums it up by paraphrasing the words of the students themselves: ``What we are saying is that there are certain things that we can do as young people that you cannot do as adults, and we want to help you. So help us help you.''