updated 4/9/2005 3:34:13 AM ET 2005-04-09T07:34:13

He has commanded ships, flown jets, founded a charity to help the young, established a thriving organic food business and sponsored a new village to test his architectural theories.

Yet Prince Charles can’t shake a public perception of him as distant and slightly eccentric, someone who talks to plants and messed up marriage to one of the world’s most desirable women.

Indeed, Charles described himself in an interview years ago as “a bit of a twit.”

The public rejoiced when Charles wed Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, but the long collapse of the marriage did immense damage to his public standing. Diana, with an innate gift for public relations, persuaded much of the public that Charles wrecked the marriage through his devotion to another woman — Camilla Parker Bowles.

It was all fought out on front pages, through leaks, interviews and comments from friends on both sides.

“Just look at the level of intrusion, persistent, endless carping, pontificating, criticizing, examining, inventing,” an exasperated prince since in a TV documentary broadcast in 1994.

Charles, 56, has been training to be king all his life. Given that his grandmother lived to 101 and Queen Elizabeth II is a robust 78, he may wait for decades still.

He was the first heir to the throne to earn a college degree — in history from Cambridge University — and commanded a Royal Navy mine sweeper. His interests and accomplishments include flying jets, parachuting, scuba diving, skiing, polo and painting watercolors.

Charles has won respect for the time he devotes to The Prince’s Trust, which has helped more than 35,000 disadvantaged young people start their own businesses and provided job training to thousands more each year.

His Duchy of Cornwall estate has gone into the food business, selling high-quality cookies and bread as part of the prince’s passion for organic farming.

Moving beyond merely criticizing modern architecture, he has tested his ideas by establishing the village of Poundbury in southwestern England.

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