June 29, 2011 12:00 PM

When he was little, she called him Wombat. But as that precious boy with the cheeky grin grew into a strapping, handsome teen, Princess Diana’s older son was given a new nickname: DDG. “Short for Drop Dead Gorgeous,” explains the family’s former chef Darren McGrady. “She idolized him.”

And he adored her. Diana injected fun and normalcy into the childhood of the future King: There were trips to McDonald’s, roller-coaster rides and even the occasional stealth visit to a homeless shelter—un-announced and beyond the paparazzi’s glare. “I want them to have an understanding of people’s emotions, people’s insecurities, people’s distress, and people’s hopes and dreams,” Diana later explained.

And of course, there was affection. Determined to spare William the starchy royal upbringing that Charles had endured, Diana was extravagant with hugs and kisses. If the dark days of his parents’ tumultuous marriage had lingering effects on the prince—as a little boy he passed tissues under the bathroom door to his weeping mum—he has kept them private. But after the roiling scandals that made his parents’ lives a public soap opera, William’s decision to marry a woman with whom he has an abiding friendship and numerous shared interests stands in marked contrast to the brief, opposites-attract courtship that began his parents’ doomed union.

William has been less guarded about the shadow that Diana’s 1997 death—when he was just 15—has cast upon his life. “Never being able to say the word Mummy again…sounds like a small thing,” he has said. “However, for many, including me, it is now really just a word—hollow and evoking only memories.”

On William’s wedding day, when new memories were made, it was a rare onlooker who did not think of Diana and the extra dose of joy she might have brought to the occasion. Says McGrady: “I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the Abbey, she would have been looking down and saying, ‘Look at him, everyone. Drop Dead Gorgeous.'”

Her Son: THE PEOPLE’S PRINCE

“Just as Diana did, William has a huge empathy for people,” says Cally Palmer, CEO of Royal Marsden hospital, who has worked with them both. “He sits really close to the patients and chats to them.” It’s no accident: The prince, who is a patron of 20 charities, has said publicly that he wants “to follow in her footsteps and help.” His mum, notes Diana’s old friend Julia Samuel, would “be bursting with pride.”

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