When 1,000 thrift executives and directors meet today for their annual convention in Atlanta, some of them will be wearing blue and gold buttons bearing the message "Back to Normal."

That slogan alludes to the hometown of the incoming chairman of America's Community Bankers, C. William Landefeld, who hails from Normal, Ill.

But it also refers to the fact that for the first time in years, the thrift industry is back to normal, no longer on pins and needles, waiting for something to happen.

Thrifts won two major legislative victories in 1996: the thrift fund rescue package and forgiveness of $3 billion in federal taxes on bad-debt reserves set aside before 1988.

"We achieved things that have been important to us for a long time," said ACB outgoing chairman James F. Montgomery, who heads the thrift giant, Great Western Financial Corp., Chatsworth, Calif.

It's also been a year of record profits for savings institutions. "The industry is ecstatic," added Mr. Landefeld.

The good feelings have been long in coming. When this decade began, thrifts were reeling after 500 institutions - 20% of the industry - were seized by federal regulators. Survivors gathered in San Francisco for the annual convention of what was then the U.S. League of Savings Institutions, wondering whether thrifts had a future.

In the ensuing years, the thrift industry rebounded, but couldn't shake the legacy of its bad times: It had an insurance fund that was undercapitalized by billions of dollars and had an annual interest tab of nearly $800 million on Financing Corp. bonds. The bonds were issued in the late 1980s as part of the first phase of the savings and loan cleanup.

Nearly two years ago, thrifts offered to capitalize their insurance fund, provided banks helped them shoulder the Fico interest burden. But it wasn't until last month that Congress approved a rescue package.

"We've resolved the biggest cloud overhanging our institutions," Mr. Montgomery said.

Mr. Montgomery worked nearly full time lobbying for a thrift fund fix this year. "I told my board I could do more for Great Western's franchise working (in Washington) on this issue than I could working at home," he said.

He strengthened his lobbying hand when Great Western and other thrifts started getting regulatory approval for applications to start bank affiliates - the first step in a strategy to avoid paying the thrift fund's high deposit insurance premiums.

Those plans were a "very visible" sign that if Congress failed to act, deposits would move out of the thrift fund and could spur a crisis, he said. If that developed, banks realized that they would be sucked into whatever solution was devised.

But with these anxious days behind thrifts, "there's a positive anticipation about the months ahead," said ACB president Paul A. Schosberg.

Thrifts face intense competition not just from banks but from outside the banking industry, Mr. Schosberg said. And thrifts realize that "they can't sit on record earnings, but must deploy them" to modernize their business structures, harness technology, and offer new products and services.

The convention will explore some of these new challenges. This morning, for example, Michael Karlin, the president of Security First Network Bank, the first bank on the Internet, will speak on technology and community banking.

ACB also will be introducing its web page at the convention, a tool the group intends to use for both member services and to enhance its public profile, Mr. Schosberg said.

When he speaks on Tuesday morning, Mr. Schosberg will stress that thrifts and banks must address ways to get Americans to save more, particularly for their retirement. "There's a real concern we've given up (the retirement savings market) to the Merrill Lynches of the world," he said.

The convention also will address the one uncertainty thrifts still face: the impact of a merger of the bank and thrift charters. Charter questions will be discussed during a panel Wednesday morning, the final day of the convention.

But there seems to be a growing consensus that whatever the charter changes, thrifts will continue in some form well into the 21st century.

ACB for one is thinking positively. Its leadership team, to be selected this week, includes not only its 1997 chairman but also the officers likely to be part of the group for the two years after that.

Cornelius D. Mahoney, president and chief executive officer of Woronoco Savings Bank, Westfield, Mass., is expected to head the trade group in 1998. E. Lee Beard, president and chief executive officer, First Federal Savings, Hazleton, Pa., is in line to be ACB's first woman chairman in 1999.

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