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Away From the Limelight, Diana Shone on the Needy


LONDON — On a raw winter night in 1994, Princess Diana dropped by a shelter called Off the Streets to comfort 40 prostitutes, drug addicts and other homeless Londoners.

As they waited, a swaggering 23-year-old told Paul George, the social worker in charge: "I don't know about these royals. I think the IRA should shoot them all. She comes in here, we can give her a good one."

George remembers: "Then Diana walks in, and he's the first person she sees in this big warehouse. She walks over to him, and I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, this is going to be trouble!'

"But then Diana says: 'It's Ricky, isn't it? Didn't I meet you when you were sleeping down in the Strand?' And he just melts. 'That's right,' he says. 'I'm getting myself together now.' "

That story is one of many surfacing this week that suggest Diana touched the sick and the down-and-out far more often and perhaps more deeply than was publicized during her lifetime. "It's an example of how she disarms and charms," George said, having trouble using the past tense.

The death of Diana, who was described by the London newspaper the Independent as "probably the most successful fund-raiser on the planet," has set off a flood of new offers to her favorite charities. In response, Buckingham Palace on Tuesday set up an official memorial fund in her name to collect and administer them.

While welcoming that move, Britons involved in these causes said Diana's true legacy is not the millions she raised with celebrity lunches and an auction of her fashionable clothes but an irreplaceable compassion she brought to people she was helping.

The British-based Leprosy Mission and the National AIDS Trust credit Diana with easing the stigma of those diseases by embracing sufferers on camera, dispelling the myth that either can be spread by simple human contact.

She also held publicized benefits for the Centrepoint organization for the homeless, the English National Ballet, the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children and the Royal Marsden Hospital, a cancer treatment center--the few charities she focused on after resigning from 100 others in July 1996, just before her divorce from Prince Charles.

But Diana kept most of her work from public view.

"There was no financial benefit when she made a private visit," said George, whose shelter is one of 14 run by Centrepoint. "Money is not what it was about. She wanted to know what life was like for people less fortunate than herself. And she wanted to make a difference by showing that she cared."

Diana went incognito to the Strand--the London artery that connects the City and the West End--to visit vagrants sleeping on the pavement, George said, and a few months ago she brought her two sons to his shelter to help prepare a meal and meet people staying there. He said those visits often involved elaborate security procedures to throw photographers off her trail.

While it was never a secret that the princess conducted missions of comfort out of the limelight, the extent is just starting to become known. A wide range of ordinary Britons whose burdens she shared now feel free to speak about friendships that, until her death, remained confidential.

Philip Woolcock, a 45-year-old social worker, told the Daily Telegraph that he and his wife had carried on a friendship with "the real Diana" since 1991, when Diana first learned through her charity work that their 18-year-old daughter, Louise, was dying of cancer.

After comforting the young woman with calls and bedside visits until her death in 1992, Diana dropped in on the parents and confided, in tears, that her marriage was falling apart, Woolcock said.

"Judy and I simply couldn't believe that here was the future queen confiding in us," he told the newspaper. "She spoke to us with such honesty and compassion. . . . That visit made us feel that life was probably still worth living after our terrible loss."

Other Britons helped by Diana said in interviews that they too felt her all the more empathetic because she did not hide the suffering in her own life. "She knows that homelessness can happen to anyone," George said. "In a sense, at some point she must have felt homeless herself."

Among the mourners at Kensington Palace this week was Danielle Stevenson, 8, whom the princess had visited five times after the girl had heart surgery at London's Royal Brompton Hospital in May. Diana had also given the child her direct phone number at the palace and taken her calls.

"She gave our patients what none of us was able to give--this magic," said hospital spokeswoman Averil Slade. "She came here as often as three times a week. She'd bounce in unannounced, in jeans and [athletic shoes], sit on people's beds and talk for hours."

As such outpourings of gratitude have filled the British media, some readers question whether Diana deserves such a saintly image.

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