NEW YORK — Millions of Americans can scarcely remember a weekday where Katie Couric wasn't a part of their morning routine.
Maybe the "Today" show was on in the background when they gathered their homework for school. Later, she was there when they gulped a quick cup of coffee before work. In a few years, they'd watch TV while feeding the baby and Couric was still there — a few hairstyles later.
That comes to an end on Wednesday, Couric's last day as "Today" co-host. She'll be feted in a three-hour special edition stuffed with film clips and performances by Tony Bennett, Martina McBride and the cast of the Broadway show "Jersey Boys."
How will she be able to hold it all together?
"I haven't really thought about it and worried about it," Couric told The Associated Press. "I'll do what I've always done for 15 years and be myself. I'll react the way I react."
Couric, 49, will take June off and then report to work at CBS News. She'll start anchoring the "CBS Evening News" in September.
A playful counterpoint to Gumbel
Her tenure as "Today" host began on April 5, 1991. She looked impossibly young then next to Bryant Gumbel, her playfulness a perfect counterpoint when he lapsed into self-seriousness. She was pregnant with Elinor at the time, and gave birth to her second daughter Caroline in 1996.
Viewers felt an immediate connection. She was family, and fans grieved when Couric's husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer in 1998 and made her a young widow. Couric evolved from the girl-next-door into someone more glamorous — a diva at times, some critics thought. For more than a decade, however, she has remained viewers' first choice in the morning.
Jeff Zucker, then the "Today" executive producer, said he knew she was a natural from that first day.
"She emerged as one of the seminal hosts in morning television history," said Zucker, now CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group. "She grew up on the air and changed both professionally and personally. She earned her stripes as one of the great news broadcasters in history. I think she'll be remembered for her ability to do both the silly and the important."
Morning shows morph every day from news to a program primarily for stay-at-home women who want entertainment and advice. A host must be able to convincingly interview a head of state and a rock star within minutes of each other.
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Early test on thinking on her feet
Couric was tested early. She was being given a tour of the White House in 1992 by first lady Barbara Bush, and had studied up on things like Dolly Madison's tea set.
Then President Bush unexpectedly walked in ready to talk, and Couric had to wing it for a 19-minute interview that touched on the presidential campaign and international affairs.
"I saw my life flash before my eyes that morning, at least my career," she remembered.
Interviews with politicians are some of her fondest memories, like call-in shows conducted with Vice President Gore and Ross Perot. Couric's on-air colonoscopy — a spectacularly successful attempt to raise awareness about the disease that killed her husband — is an indelible memory of her time on "Today."
"Because I had to learn so much when Jay was sick and distill a lot of complicated medical ideas for my own edification, I've become good at that for other people," she said. "I've really enjoyed doing that because hopefully I'm doing a service."
Couric is most proud of giving her all to make each segment a positive experience, whether it's a newsy interview or a cooking segment. She won't miss "having to go from zero to Mach 10 in 10 minutes every morning."
'Not a morning person'
She makes a startling admission: "I'm not a morning person."
That said, Couric doesn't feel the urge to take a sledgehammer to her alarm clock for all the years it went off at 5 a.m.
"People are always so disappointed — they're so sadistic," she said. "When I tell them that I don't get up at 3, they're really disappointed. The hours are really very manageable. But you really have to jump-start your brain in a fast way. That's a tough experience. To ease into the day a little bit more might be a nice change of pace for me."
Despite jumping to the competition, Couric said NBC has been "incredibly gracious" during the transition.
"I think I've had a long time to come to grips with this one," Zucker said. "Obviously, it's bittersweet for all of us. We're sorry to see her go but completely understand why she wants a new challenge in her life. We all feel great about the way it's happened and we all feel great about the future.'
Business is business, though: NBC kept Couric on the job until the very last day of her contract, and painstakingly negotiated an agreement that restricted what CBS executives could say about her until the contract expired.
In September, when Couric shows up in the evening at CBS, Meredith Vieira will move into her chair next to Matt Lauer on "Today."
Does Couric have any advice for her successor?
"Have fun!" she said.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.