June 29, 2011 12:00 PM

He is, quite simply, an incredible catch. What else do you call a handsome, 6’3″ 28-year-old who flies rescue helicopters (even on Christmas Day), excels at nearly every sport imaginable and sends handwritten cards and flowers to cancer patients? Even putting aside the unfathomable fortune he stands to inherit, there’s no denying that William of Wales is, as the Brits might put it, a good chap.

“He’s very kind,” says a friend of the prince’s. “He’s not a pushover, but I’ve never seen a nasty side to him.” At the Royal Air Force base on Anglesey in Wales, where William copilots Sea King search-and-rescue helicopters on a four-member team, “he drops the ‘His Royal Highness’ at the gates,” says Group Captain Jonathan Dixon. “When he’s with us, he’s Flight Lieutenant Wales and is a junior officer.”

He’s equally unassuming when he visits with pediatric cancer patients in London’s Royal Marsden hospital or turns up at 7 a.m. to serve breakfast to homeless young people at the Centre-point shelter, of which he’s a patron, just as his mother was before him. “He knows that being a figurehead is important, but he’s also engaged in making a difference,” says Julia Samuel, founder of the Children’s Bereavement Charity, which William supports. “Both William and Harry have a natural compassion and a natural empathy, which sounds a bit corny, but they’ve been breast-fed it, haven’t they?”

Certainly their mother had an overwhelmingly good influence. But life was also complicated at Kensington Palace. Although he was born into privilege with nannies and servants, young William had one of the most scrutinized childhoods ever known, with every tantrum—and even one public spanking from his mum—recorded by the buzzardlike British press. Then, in the mid-1990s, when William was transitioning from Ludgrove middle school to the elite prep school Eton, his parents began the televised disintegration of their marriage. When the drama abruptly ended with the princess’s death in 1997, William was just 15 and found himself grieving under the microscope as well. “You just felt, wherever you went, people were watching you,” he later recalled.

Nestled away at Eton and Highgrove, the family’s country estate, William took solace in his father, his brother and best mate, Harry, and a close group of aristocratic pals. After a year off between graduation and university spent in Chile, Kenya and Belize, he was largely left in peace at St. Andrews, thanks to a “gentleman’s agreement” between the Palace and the British press. Still, it’s tough to settle into college life when you fear everyone has an ulterior motive for being your friend. “It’s one thing I’m really quite guarded about,” William said.

Before long, as the world now knows, a pretty classmate from Berkshire had cracked his armor. With her unfailing discretion and serene demeanor, Kate Middleton fit right into the drama-free life that William—against the odds of his upbringing—had fashioned for himself. “William has a feel for what is the right thing to do,” says family friend Alex van Straubenzee; both William and Harry are patrons of the Henry van Straubenzee Memorial Fund, started after the death of Alex’s young son. “That is why he is genuinely loved and people are willing him to do well. He is going to have a fantastically good future.”

BOND of BROTHERS

They argue over the remote, communicate by text message and mercilessly tease their aging dad. “We want to be as normal as possible,” Prince Harry has said of himself and William. Yet their lives have been anything but, which has made the two brothers closest confidantes. Harry “does what he feels is right,” William has said of his sometimes impetuous brother, while Harry has noted that William “enjoys himself more than people think.” That was certainly true on the polo field in 2004, when both boys out-played their dad. “We’re too good for him,” Will ribbed, while Charles responded, “They tried to kill me so they could walk off with my ponies!”

The FAMILY BUSINESS

Career-wise, you might say William’s choices are rather limited. So it’s just as well the future King so admires the way his father—who is due to ascend the throne before William—gets the job done. He has had “a huge influence [on me],” William has said of Charles. “He does so many amazing things. I only wish people would see that more.” Until the moment comes to be crowned, William’s current job, as a copilot of search-and-rescue helicopters for the Royal Air Force, also follows closely in his father’s footsteps; it was Charles who awarded him his flight wings upon his graduation from RAF training. Along with a love of sports and the countryside, their rather heavy shared destiny seems to draw the pair closer. “I feel deeply for him,” Charles has said of the public scrutiny that William has always faced. “In my day it was difficult enough.”

For a long time, the predominant image of Charles was that of an aloof, distant father and unfaithful husband who made life a misery for the mother of his widely-adored little boys. But the tragedy of Diana’s death seemed to reduce those years of indignity to the stuff of mere melodrama. In the aftermath, the Prince of Wales settled into his role as a single dad and monarch-in-waiting, embracing environmental and philanthropic causes and earning the love and admiration of both his sons. William and Harry even quietly came around to the idea of his marriage to Diana’s one-time nemesis, Camilla Parker Bowles. “They love him terribly,” Charles’s former press secretary Colleen Harris said of the young princes, “and want him to be happy.”

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