By People Staff
Updated September 15, 1997 12:00 PM

Stuart Chapman was at East London’s Mildmay Mission Hospital comforting his partner—who lay dying of AIDS—when Princess Diana came to visit one day in 1991. “She was very gentle and made sure she touched his hand,” says Chapman, now 36. The encounter was brief, but a few weeks later Chapman received a small package in the mail. “It was a photograph of Diana, me and my partner that she had framed and signed,” says Chapman. “She made people realize that you can have AIDS but still be a human being.”

Indeed, during her often turbulent 17 years in the world spotlight, Diana’s sincere sympathy for those in need remained constant. She logged thousands of miles a year in support of her causes, even traveling to dangerous locales in Bosnia and Angola. Where Charles was concerned with architecture and organic farming, Diana chose issues that touched people directly. In 1987, when many still feared AIDS could be contracted through casual contact, she calmly offered her ungloved hand to a patient at a London hospital. (“The most important thing a royal has done in 200 years,” says royals reporter Judy Wade.) In 1993 she reached out to touch lepers in Nepal “to show,” she said, “that they are not reviled.” Outside Buckingham Palace last week, one bereaved man—echoing Prime Minister Tony Blair—said simply, “She was the people’s princess, she was.”

In the end, that was the title she wore best. The fashion harbinger in glittering jewels and designer gowns was, in fact, more comfortable dealing with Mother Teresa than playing at Marie Antoinette. Using her celebrity to focus attention on breast cancer, drug addiction and, most recently, the carnage wrought by land mines, she had, by the time of her death, largely fulfilled her goal to become the “queen of people’s hearts.” In her last interview, Diana told Le Monde, “Nothing gives me more happiness than to try to aid the most vulnerable of this society. Whoever is in distress who calls me, I will come running.”

Some speculated it was her unhappy childhood that made her so sensitive to others’ pain. She herself once suggested that her status as a royal outcast made her identify with the disenfranchised. “I was very confused by which area I should go into,” she told the BBC two years ago. “Then I found myself being more and more involved with people who were rejected by society…and I found an affinity there.”

Though she cut the number of charities she actively supported from more than 100 to six when her divorce was finalized last year, her intensity didn’t slacken. “She would look you in the eye when she arrived as if to say, ‘I’m yours for the evening. What do you want me to do?’ ” says Michael Watson, former chairman of the AIDS charity Crusaid in London. “If she had to stand on her head for you, she would do it.”

Not that she ever had to. The mere sight of the world’s most popular princess was enough to make the dollars—and the press—start pouring in. The auction of 79 of her evening gowns at Christie’s last June—an idea first suggested by Prince William—raised more than $5.7 million for charity. After her death, Buckingham Palace had to set up a special memorial fund to accommodate the flood of money being donated for her causes. “No one could bring attention to an issue like she could,” says Landmine Survivors Network head Ken Rutherford, 35, who accompanied Di to Bosnia last month. “She was magic with these people.”

But despite her high philanthropic profile, many of Diana’s most moving gestures were made far from the cameras. Lord Thomas, a 37-year-old Londoner-not a nobleman-recalls Diana often stopping by the AIDS hospice where he volunteered to serve lunch to the residents. “She wasn’t there in any official capacity; she would come to visit completely on her own,” he says. “She did things like this because she wanted to, from her heart.” And one New Zealand family who recently lost members in a drunk-driving accident received a telegram on Sept. 1 written by Diana offering her condolences. Among the crowds of mourners last week were ordinary folk of all backgrounds who had benefited from her kindness. “Diana wasn’t like the other royals,” said medical secretary Dawn Winter, 35, as she placed a bouquet of lilies at Kensington Palace. “She was one of us.”

These stories were written by Michelle Green, Bill Hewitt, Kim Hubbard, Anne-Marie O’Neill and Cynthia Sanz.

They were reported by Bryan Alexander, Nina Biddle, Joanna Blonska, Kimberly Chrisman, Sarah Delaney, Lydia Denworth, Johnny Dodd, Jeanne Gordon, Laura Sanderson Healy, Linda Kramer, Danelle Morton, Cathy Nolan, Pete Norman, Simon Perry, Ellin Stein, Elizabeth Terry, Craig Tomashoff, Margaret Wright and Larry Writer.