At Abracadabra Child Care and Development Center in Alexandria yesterday, everything was ready for the first day of school. Registration forms were all filled out, and brightly colored seat pads were at the ready, a recent purchase by Kathy Wilson, director of the preschool for the past 12 years.

The only thing missing was Wilson herself. She died early Thursday in her sleep, at age 54, of an apparent heart attack. Her death, just days before the start of school, left a tightly knit community of friends, colleagues, students and family members reeling.

But instead of closing its doors to mourn, the school opened yesterday with Wilson's husband, Paul, present for his ritual, in which he tallies the number of new students who cry on the first day.

Then in the afternoon, more than 300 mourners packed Baptist Temple Church, which owns the nondenominational school, for her funeral. So, in a way, Wilson was able to be there for the first day of school.

It was a difficult day.

"We continued as if nothing had happened," said teacher Diana Bishop. "She wouldn't want it any other way. Kathy's philosophy was always, 'The child comes first,' so you would still have to keep up that appearance.

"I guess we'll have to mourn when we're at home," she added.

For three hours in the late afternoon, many of the school's 2- to 5-year-olds romped outside at the playground Wilson built, only dimly aware of the somberness of the day.

Inside the church, the adults, including Wilson's grown son and daughter, recalled her irreverence and "straight-shooter style," as well as her deep commitment to children.

"She was bombastic, gutsy and wonderfully naughty," said Sissy Walker, director of the Beverley Hills Church Pre-School in Alexandria and a friend of Wilson's.

"And she loved young children with every fiber of her body," Walker added.

The Rev. Michael L. Allen, a former pastor at the church, added, "We trusted her with our most precious possessions, didn't we -- our children and our hearts -- and she never let us down."

Some recalled her years as a political activist and feminist. One mourner, Steve Geter, worked at the school until recently, when he enrolled at James Madison University. Last year, when he was applying, Wilson rallied parents and teachers to write him recommendations.

Outside the service, Susan Rutherford, who has two sons at Abracadabra, said her children had drawn pictures for Wilson but didn't really understand what it meant that she had died.

"But actually, that's how Ms. Kathy would want it," she said, calling her by the name everyone at the school used. "She wanted people to live and embrace life."

The ceremony bore marks of the children. A large piece of cloth covering Wilson's coffin was decorated with a riot of brightly colored handprints, made that day by Abracadabra students and children who attend the church.

Recent graduates of the school, now kindergartners, returned to join current students in a three-verse rendition of "This Land Is Your Land," which they had sung at the school's graduation in June and which Wilson, described by one mourner as a "true child of the '60s," had loved.

Some of the children sang with bright smiles, but one little girl in a pink shirt screwed up her face during the song and buried her head in her hands. Vanessa Hicks, an Abracadabra teacher, hugged her.

Paul Wilson bends toward his wife's coffin, which is covered by the handprints of children Kathy Wilson touched.Teacher Vanessa Hicks tries to comfort Molly Schulwolf, 5, a graduate of the preschool program.