(CNN) -- Brian Betts was the reformist principal of a struggling middle school, but to many students, he was much more than that.
"When I came here, he took me under his wing. He treated me more like a father than anyone ever has in my entire life. He was a father to me," a young man said during a tearful candlelight memorial at a Silver Spring, Maryland, school where Betts taught until 2008.
Betts, 42, the high-profile principal of Washington's resurgent Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, was found shot to death in his home Thursday. His vehicle was found several miles away Saturday, and police are following leads.
"I loved him like a father," one girl said at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School, the Maryland magnet school where he taught before landing the principal job in Washington. "He was the dad I never had, and now I feel like I've lost myself. I always used to call him Daddy Betts because of everything he did for me."
Students loved Betts because he took them seriously but had fun with them, and teachers appreciated him because he was willing to take chances.
"He was an inspirational leader for the teachers and for the students, and that leadership was bringing results," Michelle Rhee, District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor, said in a written statement. "He knew what the children under his care were capable of, and he was determined to show them how to get there."
Rhee hired Betts in 2008 to fix Shaw, one of the district's lowest-performing schools, and gave him a great deal of latitude in finding ways to do it. He eliminated recess and homeroom periods and instituted a program to pay certain students for good behavior and grades.
Betts was allowed to hire most of his own faculty and staffed his building with relatively inexperienced teachers. Commitment to the students and passion for their success were more important to him than experience, he told the Washington Post in 2008.
"Nothing that I have ever seen trumps personal relationships at this level," Betts told the Post, which wrote about him several times. "The kids in this building who can be absolutely horrible in one person's class can be angelic in another because they have formed a relationship with that teacher."
During the candlelight memorial at his former school in Maryland, youth after youth stepped forward to testify to Betts' loving care as an educator -- and to his fun side.
The girl who called him Daddy Betts said she once swiped his walkie-talkie and ran off with it, "and he threw me in a trash can," she said to laughter. "And that was the kind of thing I loved about him."
On a D.C. Public Schools message board, a man who said Betts had been his physical education teacher 20 years ago said "he was the kind of teacher you never forget."
"In the beginning of the year I thought that Mr. Betts and I had a special friendship," the man posted on the board, where no names were given. "He always made me feel like the only student that he taught. Later on I realized that he had that kind of friendship with all of his students."
Betts' inspiration extended beyond students to faculty as well.
"Brian was the rare person who could inspire both adults and children to action, who could cross lines of class and race with apparent ease, who could communicate the highest of expectations with kindness and love," a DCPS employee posted. "Seeing Brian with his students inspired me to work harder as an educator. And there is no question that he inspired his students to do more."
Alison Serino, Betts' former boss in Maryland, knew where she stood when he was there.
"I was the principal, but come on! He was the mayor," Serino told the students at the memorial. "I just hope we don't forget how big he lived life."