A rich man from Virginia came to Good Hope Hill yesterday and wrote a check that could change 60 lives.

The sixth graders at Winston Educational Center in Southeast Washington had been told to expect a surprise. They got George Kettle, a Falls Church multimillionaire who promised to put all 60 sixth graders through college.

All they have to do is stay in school. Kettle, who got rich after buying the first Century 21 real estate brokerage outside of California, will pay for the rest. He's putting up $300,000 now; with interest and later contributions, he expects the program to cost about $600,000.

"I'm the whitey from Virginia," Kettle, 57, joked as he stood before the all-black class. "Boys and girls, if you will make a commitment to work and study hard in school, I'll make a commitment to you that each and every one of you, without exception, can go to college. I'll help you alter your life."

He said it so casually that there was hardly a stir in the gymnasium, no whoops of surprise, no tears of joy.

None, that is, from students. But School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie dabbed away tears and Calvin Woodland, a former boxer who runs a neighborhood athletic program supported by Kettle's money, wept at his friend's generosity.

"I've never met a more sincere person, black or white, in my life," Woodland said. "What he has to say to my kids today has touched me beyond reality."

It was Woodland who talked to several principals and selected Winston, a prekindergarten through eighth-grade school at 31st and Erie streets SE.

Winston is a modern, windowless building across from an apartment complex known as Good Hope Hill. The school is in Naylor Gardens, a neighborhood of large houses on wooded streets, working-class apartments and a public housing complex. Half of Winston's students are eligible for subsidized meals.

The children and a handful of parents on hand appeared not to react to Kettle's announcement. Some blamed the lack of apparent drama on a local television station, which spoiled the surprise by reporting the gift Wednesday night. Others pointed to the intangibility of the gift.

The students "were expecting a surprise you could put in your hands," teacher Charles Mayo said. "This is very abstract right now."

"I didn't know about it 'til you explained it," said Alfred Smith, 13, who had just sat through Kettle's announcement. "I like it and I really thank them. It is a lot of money." Smith wants to be a lawyer.

Eugene Lang could have predicted the response.

When the 67-year-old Manhattan industrialist returned to East Harlem's P.S. 121, which he attended, to speak to sixth graders, there were no cameras, no hoopla. That day six years ago, Lang made an impromptu promise to pay for college for every student in the audience.

This is payoff year for Lang, who followed up his promise by visiting students frequently and hiring a social worker and tutors. Lang said he has shelled out about $150,000 so far and expects to spend $600,000 on students in his "I Have A Dream" program.

In a neighborhood where about 75 percent of students drop out of high school, about two-thirds of the 52 students in Lang's adopted class plan to start college in September or January. Most will attend public colleges; others are going to Swarthmore, Barnard and Bard.

One landed in Attica prison on an armed robbery charge. But Lang told the Winston students yesterday that he has not given up even on Michael Lopez. Lopez earned a high school degree in prison. And Lang said he has arranged college admission and a paramedic job for him when he gets out this fall.

In the past year, Lang and his I Have A Dream Foundation have worked to spread his idea. Washington is the 15th city to join; about 4,000 students nationwide have been adopted by wealthy people, Lang said.

Kettle said a TV report on Lang's program inspired him to do the same for poor children in the District.

"There's two ways out for these kids and that's God and that's education," he said. "I'm here to help with the education."

Kettle, who owns the Century 21 master franchise covering Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, the District and eastern Pennsylvania, has 440 offices and 6,000 sales people in his real estate empire. It has made him so much money, he ran out of things to buy.

"You get to a point where you have far more materially than you could ever use," he said. "You ask yourself if this is success . . . and the answer was no. If I could change a few lives, then my life will have been a success."

Kettle has been helping for years. He gives away Christmas turkeys and takes dozens of children to department stores, giving them money to buy holiday presents for relatives. Now he is recruiting other rich people to adopt classes.

McKenzie thanked Kettle and urged other people to do the same. The District school system, like many urban systems, has embraced offers of private support recently, setting up a foundation to seek private contributions and encouraging parents, companies and government agencies to adopt schools.

While Kettle expects some parents will not want to get involved with the program, he sees no reason that they might resent a white benefactor from the suburbs. Lang said there will be resentment.

"These kids grow up in an environment where they get all kinds of promises from white and black politicians and they learn not to believe what they hear," he said.

The parents who attended yesterday's assembly don't need convincing.

"It's a great thing," said Grover Cullins, a Metrobus driver and father of Ericka. "I was going to try to start saving for college, but this will really help them study."

Kenya Stroughter, 11, had his future planned even before yesterday. "I'm going to be a mathematician and go to Texas State," he said. "If I don't become a mathematician, I'll be a football player."

His father, Walter, owner of Black's Supermarket in Northeast, laughed.

"I feel great," he said. "I won't have to work quite as hard. I dropped out of college to join the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, but now, if Kenya keeps the attitude he has now, nothing will stop him."