For nearly three decades, production assistant Eric Hill has worked furiously behind the scenes to help TODAY anchors get on air. He’s been a presence on set that everyone looks forward to each day.
That's why Matt Lauer decided to kick off TODAY's "Pay It Forward" series on Monday by helping Hill, who has been at home fighting cancer, continue his long tradition of appearing with the gang at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
For the past 24 years, Hill has taken his annual Christmas card photo with TODAY anchors, talking his subjects into wearing various props, like silly hats, red noses, reindeer antlers or Ghostbuster jumpsuits.
His first card photo was snapped in 1990 with Katie Couric and Willard Scott.
“We’ve always been more than happy to be Eric’s elves,” Matt explained.
Former TODAY anchor Meredith Vieira shared her memories of Hill at parades past: "It was very special, because you saw in him the true the meaning of the holidays."
But this year, Hill spent Thanksgiving in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he is being treated for Stage IV colon cancer. So Matt helped arrange for the TODAY anchors to bring a bit of the parade to him.
With the help of a special cardboard cut-out, and a few physician-related costumes, Matt and the other TODAY anchors posed with Hill for his annual Christmas card.
"Eric, we wish you a speedy recovery. We miss you pal, we love you," Matt said while posing for the photo from Herald Square. "Have a really happy holiday. Doctors orders!"
But sending him that picture via mail or electronically wouldn’t be enough, so Matt made a special delivery.
As Hill thought he was being interviewed at his home by TODAY crew for staff holiday greeting, he got a bit of a surprise when Matt walked up behind him.
“Oh my God. This is a gotcha,” a stunned Hill said.
Matt said he couldn’t bear to end a tradition that has been carried on for nearly a quarter century.
"We've taken some amazing pictures for your holiday card. And I know you were disappointed you couldn't be there to celebrate the 25th anniversary, and we were disappointed, too," he said. "We didn't want you to think we would let that milestone go by without stopping to do something special.
"So after the parade, we got together and we took some liberties and you were there in spirit and we want to show you that we didn't forget the 25th."
An emotional Hill temporarily was at a loss for words.
"You guys are the best. I miss you," he said.
The feeling is definitely mutual.
"It’s not the same without you, Eric," Savannah said Monday from the set. "We miss you so much."
This story is part of NBCUniversal’s Season of Kindness. Together we can grow the good this holiday season. #ShareKindness