Exxon Corp. Chairman Lawrence G. Rawl keeps a book about shipwrecks on a shelf of his sprawling, sparsely furnished office. But to the head of the nation's biggest oil company, the worst shipwreck of all happened on his watch and now he's paying the price of public rebuke.

The one-time petroleum engineer, who took over Exxon's helm in January 1987, has agonized over the image-beating the company has taken since an Exxon supertanker hit a reef in Valdez, Alaska, and spewed 250,000 barrels of gooey crude into pristine Prince William Sound, the worst spill in U.S. history.Rightly or wrongly, the 60-year-old executive has been accused by critics of mismanaging the disaster from the start, particularly because he seemed to remain hidden from the press and public for a week afterward.

While the nation awaited word from Exxon about the spill on that Good Friday morning in March, the company chairman admits he was holed up at his house in a New York suburb.

"I figured the best thing to do was stay by the phone. So I spent the day on the phone at home, basically," Rawl said in an interview in his spacious 51st-floor corner office in the Exxon tower in midtown Manhattan.

In fact, Rawl said, he had to convince himself not to rush to Alaska to take charge after aides telephoned him with the news a few hours after the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef.

"My first instinct is to become an operator. My first instinct on anything is to go," said Rawl. But he indicated, in retrospect, that may have been a mistake.

After consulting with company executives, Rawl said, he decided his presence in Valdez would detract from the critical first task of keeping the supertanker from leaking more oil.

Rawl inherited the chief executive suite at the 107-year-old company more than two years ago and is not well known to the outside world. A career Exxon executive whose personal earnings topped $9 million last year, Rawl says he is comfortable in the vast office.

A 10-foot live ficus tree is the most prominent feature. A blue-jacketed book titled "Ships and Shipwrecks" leans on a shelf with a handful of others.

"I'm not much for decoration; I've been told that," he said, eyeing the bare walls. "Everyone wants to decorate it for me."

For the first time in his 37 years with Exxon, Rawl has had to publicly defend himself and his company against what he calls "deep and virulent attacks," something with which he is clearly uncomfortable.

Attempting to convince an unbelieving public of the company's sincerity, he says, has become the most painful crisis of his executive career.

Despite his role in the limelight Rawl remains an enigma to many Wall Street security analysts.

"This is the only company that analysts don't get a chance to sit with the operating management," said Frank P. Knuettel, with Prudential-Bache Securities Inc.

Rawl readily admits he's not the most effusive personality but dismisses accusations he has evaded the press or Wall Street scrutiny. "I know I'm not, certainly not, flamboyant. I don't believe I could carry that off. But I'm not hiding out."