Six hundred former students and colleagues of teacher Phil Cornel Campbell gathered at his high school yesterday to offer him in death what they said he spent his life giving them: respect and love.

They jammed the auditorium at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville to honor the former sociology teacher and student government adviser, who succumbed to AIDS on Feb. 9. He is believed to have been the only Montgomery County teacher with AIDS to publicly disclose his condition.

Wendell Coleman, who graduated from Paint Branch in 1985, broke down as he eulogized Campbell. Coleman called his former teacher "an everyday hero, a 365-day-a-year hero. . . . When we give of ourselves, we pay a lasting tribute to Mr. Campbell."

Campbell, who was 45 when he died, retired from Paint Branch last June after teaching for 17 years in Montgomery. He learned in 1988 that he was HIV-positive and discovered he had full-blown AIDS early last year.

Students remembered him as an energetic, passionate and funny man who understood their fits of angst and alienation.

Beverly Gorenstein, the school's student body president, recalled how Campbell was concerned that she was depressed about the time she turned 17 last year. He threw her a surprise birthday party.

"That was the first time I realized how much he cared about me," Gorenstein said. "He believed in me, even when I didn't believe in myself."

Gorenstein and other students recalled a teacher who seemed to be a whirlwind of motion, walking the halls between classes, discussing plans for an upcoming dance with a student government leader, breaking up a fight, cheering up a student who was down.

John Mele, Campbell's companion, said that the day before the teacher died, about a dozen students in Paint Branch's Ebony Awareness Club, which Campbell helped to start, came to their District home. Two at a time, they visited Campbell in his bedroom. They prayed and sang "Amazing Grace."

When Campbell died the next evening, word spread quickly. Within an hour, Mele said, several students called, and dozens of cards and letters followed.

Paint Branch Principal Rebecca Newman said that news of Campbell's death stunned students, even though they knew of his disease. There were few outbursts of grief because, she said, it was as though students had not yet fully grasped their loss.

Dozens of students did take time to write messages to the teacher on a huge poster placed near the school's main entrance.

"You have been a great inspiration to me, as well as a dynamite teacher and a good friend," one wrote. "You always inspired me and gave me the reasons to live life to the fullest," wrote another.

"I would have totally lost my freshman year without you. Thanks for being so great," said a third.

Teachers said Campbell believed in going beyond textbooks to teach students lessons in life. That's why Campbell launched an unusual "Death and Dying" course in 1990 to help students confront a topic they preferred to avoid. He took them to funeral homes and forced them to talk about their fears of death. The course earned him national attention, with appearances on the television shows "Donahue" and "20/20."

Campbell, a tall man who wore wire-rimmed glasses, liked to plaster his classroom with socially conscious bumper stickers. Jan von Doenhoff recalled that one student was offended by an anti-apartheid sign in Campbell's room.

"Phil said {of the student}, 'I'm not angry; I want to reach him,' " von Doenhoff said. "He believed in total forgiveness." Campbell and the student wound up becoming good friends.

Some friends preferred not to speak at Paint Branch yesterday for fear they would be overwhelmed. Nicole West got to know Campbell while she studied and he taught at Key Middle School in Silver Spring in the late 1970s.

In the last six months, West and Campbell, who had lost touch in recent years, rekindled their friendship. He regularly had her to his home for dinner and began to treat her as a daughter, she said. He gave her a key to his house.

West said she feels most sorry for students and teachers who never worked with or learned from Campbell. "The people who didn't get to know him are the ones who should feel the loss," she said.