A panoply of the American political and business elite among whom Nelson A. Rockefeller worked and campaigned for 50 years came to Riverside Church today to pay him tribute.

It was a gathering of people few others could summon together -- in life or death. They came for a final goodbye to a grandson of the nation's first billionaire, who turned his back on a life of private wealth and plunged into political battle shouting his hallmark greeting "hiya fella" and grabbing for hands to shake.

That he had early taken hold of the hearts of family, friends and many who worked for him was evident from the emotional farewell they gave him.

President and Mrs. Carter sat in a front pew with Rockefeller's widow, Happy, and other family members. Former president Ford, who selected and two years later discarded Rockefeller as his vice president, sat across the aisle with Vice President Mondale, Chief Justice Warren Burger, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.

Rockefeller's youngest brother, David, and two of his children, Rodman and Ann Rockefeller Roberts, paid him tribute before Henry A. Kissinger delivered the memorial service's final eulogy.

The three Rockefellers spoke of love. "Our love for him will never end," David said.

And some of the words about love were Nelson's.

Kissinger, barely holding back his tears over the loss of the man he has described as the greatest American he ever met, recalled for the silent throng in the enormous church by the Hudson River that Rockefeller frequently would remind him:

"Never forget that the profound force in the world is love."

Kissinger, speaking slowly, told the 2,500 invited to the service that it is America's tragedy that Rockefeller was never president. "What a great president he would have been! How he would have ennobled us!" Kissinger said.

One of the men who kept Rockefeller from winning the Republican nomination, Richard Nixon, did not attend the service. The other, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, sat near the rear of the huge church and had slipped out before Kissinger's passage on the presidency.

The former secretary of state, whose first summons to public life came from Rockefeller when Kissinger was still a Harvard graduate student, gave Rockefeller credit for ideas and programs implemented by others.

"Destiny willed it that he made his enduring mark on our society almost anonymously in the programs he designed, the values he upheld and the men and women whose lives he changed," Kissinger said.

Kissinger's praise for the man who was, until he entered the Nixon administration, his principal patron, echoed that of members of Rockefeller's family.

"I thank God that the world is a better place because Nelson Rockefeller passed by," Rodman Rockefeller said in concluding his eulogy.

Kissinger took issue with the widely circulated reports of Rockefeller's disappointment that the presidency eluded him. Of "Rocky," the politician so well known for remarking "I never wanted to be vice president of anything," Kissinger said: "I never heard him express even one word of disappointment."

Rockefeller died of a heart attack Jan. 26. His last public appearance had been to introduce Kissinger at the private school his two youngest children, Mark, 12, and Nelson, 15, attend.

In his introduction, Rockefeller had said Kissinger would be both parties' choice for president if he were not ineligible because he was born abroad.

Kissinger told the memorial service today that Rockefeller's death "is both shattering and nearly inconceivable... for 25 years he had been my friend, my older brother, my inspiration and my guide."

Nondenominational Riverside Church, with its six-story-high vaulted ceiling, was always called "Father's church" by Nelson and his brothers. Their father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., gave $26 million for its construction and endowed its maintenance.

Now, the stone church has been the site of final tribute to two of the brothers. John D. Rockefeller III was killed in an automobile accident last year.

In addition to the American leaders and representatives of dozens of foreign nations who packed the church, there were the men and women who worked for Nelson Rockefeller much of their lives, members of the organization that saw him through four New York gubernatorial campaigns without a loss and three presidential bids without a win.

Several of them wept.

Again and again the family members who spoke invoked Rockefeller's vitality.

"After his death, my children and I were startled at how small his body looked. The vibrant spirit that gave power to his presence was gone," said his daughter, Ann Rockefeller Roberts.

"He relished the matching of wits, the rough and tumble which is inherent in political life," said his brother David, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank.

David stressed that Nelson was a product of a singular family and that he had given back to his family strengths like those upon which he had earlier drawn.

"Nelson was always a champion of family solidarity -- something in which mother also fervently believed. It was Nelson's far-sightedness and leadership which brought us together as a family unit -- out of which grew many joint initiatives, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund," David said.

The service ended with a prayer led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and music from a quintet led by Lionel Hampton, who had often played in Rockefeller's campaigns.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, senior minister of Riverside Church, had advised that the recessional music would be a little unusual.

After playing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Hampton swung into "Sweet Georgia Brown," one of Rockefeller's favorite songs.

The reception after the service was a gathering of the kind that Rockefeller favored. Family, close friends, Carter, Ford, Kissinger and others gathered briefly in a small library in the church.

Kissinger described Rockefeller's role in American society as symbolic of America's role in the world.

"Like him, we are uniquely strong; like him we are idealistic and a little inarticulate. But if he were here he would tell us: 'Do not look back, the future is full of exciting challenges.'"