NEW YORK — "I'm not going to say goodby."
Jane Pauley clutched "a cautionary Kleenex" as tears streaked her face Friday morning. This was the last day on the job for the popular "Today Show" co-host, an emotional time for the 39-year-old Pauley after 13 years as co-anchor and months of speculation about her future with the show and the network.
Recalling the sign-off of Frank Magee, one of her predecessors on the show, Pauley noted: "He said, 'Never go far.' I won't, and don't you.
"It's been a remarkable year for me, and next year promises to be very interesting too."
The agreed-upon plan for the day had been to wait until the last half-hour to say goodby with a videotaped tribute to Pauley and formal farewells from her present and former co-workers.
Bryant Gumbel and Deborah Norville, who is replacing Pauley in a highly publicized, controversial succession, typically, kept their professional cool. But Willard Scott, the show's irrepressible weatherman, broke through about seven minutes into the show. "If Jane's going to abscond with the company funds, I thought I'd come on down here," joked Scott, explaining why he was doing the weather from Florida.
Pauley laughed. But, after watching a piece about a retiring racehorse named Shy-away Moses, who was beloved by his owner, despite a record number of losing races, her face was filled with emotion. "You getting choked up already?" Gumbel asked. "Well, it's a big day for Shy-away Moses, retiring and all," said Pauley, who started on "Today" as a 25-year-old in 1976.
Unlike the horse, Pauley is emerging a big winner, via a talent reshuffling by NBC management that boomeranged on the "Today" show.
When Dick Ebersol, the new executive in charge of "Today," decided to expand the role of Deborah Norville last fall, placing Norville side by side with Pauley in a move to bring in younger viewers, he set off a chain reaction that led to Pauley's departure on Friday. Pauley, known as a good soldier, startled the NBC executives by asking for the termination of her contract. Women--who outnumber men by a margin of two to one in the daytime audience--reacted with an outpouring of thousands of letters for Pauley, who was seen by viewers as being callously cast aside by NBC executives for a younger, blonder replacement.
At the end of months of speculation, Pauley officially announced her departure in a passing-of-the-alarm-clock ceremony to Norville on the air in October. Pauley, who said in a previous interview with The Times that she was surprised when the NBC executives did not want to let her out of her "Today" contract, found herself in a newly powerful position. She emerged a heroine with viewers--and won an unprecedented 52-week commitment from NBC for a prime-time magazine, with Tom Brokaw as the possible co-host. (The first example of the possible Pauley-Brokaw pairing, a retrospective special on the 1980s, beat the other network competition when it aired on Wednesday.) The effects of Pauley's departure on the "Today" show ratings may not be seen for some time after Norville takes over as co-anchor on Jan. 8.
But, on Friday's show, which happened to be the last work day of the decade, the mood was elegiac and sentimental, looking backward rather than forward, over 13 years with a woman with whom many viewers have come to feel a strong personal connection.
After introducing brief profiles of three friends who signified his personal health stories of 1989, Dr. Art Ulene began the planned videotaped tribute to Pauley at about 8:45 a.m. News anchor Tom Brokaw, who was the "Today" host when Pauley was hired in 1976, sported rock-musician-length hair in video clips featuring the two. But Brokaw looked like an eminence grise compared to the baby-faced Pauley, who had been hired with a fairly short resume (Indianapolis reporter, Chicago anchor) to replace Barbara Walters.
"Jane was enormously self-confident on the air," noted Brokaw in a taped interview. But when the red light went out on the camera, he said, Pauley looked more like a young woman who was "not too far out of Indianapolis." Brokaw theorized that Pauley's popularity was due to her being "the young woman that you'd like to have as your daughter" or your next-door neighbor.
Viewers said they'd grown up with her. Social theorists analyzed the strong identification that working women feel with Pauley. And, after a series of clips of what Pauley jokingly called her "cavalcade of hairstyles," anthropologists went so far as to parse the hidden meanings of the way she parts her hair. (It has something to do with doing serious work but not taking yourself too seriously.)
But, in the package of clips from the 12,000 interviews that Pauley conducted over the years, it was not so much her interviewing but an inclusive humor-in-the moment that seemed striking, whether she was talking about her fits of jogging with Art Ulene or introducing her parents during a "Today" trip to Indianapolis.