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Gibson keeps composure on his last day

In the end, he made it. Barely.

For days, Good Morning America co-host Charlie Gibson has been telling friends and journalists "I sure as hell hope I don't" lapse into tears during his farewell broadcast _ an outburst that would follow a recent trend set by ex-GMA co-host Joan Lunden and former Today show lynchpin Bryant Gumbel.

During the two-hour show Friday, telecast from Manhattan's ritzy Tavern on the Green restaurant, Gibson indeed got through the avalanche of accolades from Barbara Walters, Dolly Parton, Joe Montana, President Bill Clinton and even Kermit the Frog without shedding a drop.

But he couldn't keep a quaver of emotion from coloring his voice during the final seconds of his 11-plus-year career leading ABC's signature morning show.

"Wouldn't you know it at the end I get nervous," he told viewers Friday. "TV is a crazy business we have millions of friends we don't know. I have been given the greatest gift. Lisa, Kevin, take care of it."

On Monday, co-hosts Lisa McRee and Kevin Newman will continue the GMA legacy, as Gibson moves to host various prime time newsmagazine projects for ABC. Network executives declined to detail exactly what Gibson's duties will be.

Though this event was a long time in coming _ Gibson told ABC executives he wanted out more than two years ago _ the final day still brought tears and misty-eyed anecdotes from a host of present and former GMA staffers assembled for the show.

"I was deathly afraid I wouldn't get through that closing speech," he told assembled staffers and well-wishers moments after the cameras were turned off. "You've made it a great day for me."

During the show, McRee, Newman and weatherman Spencer Christian hosted a loose recap of highlights from Gibson's tenure, featuring video clips of the host bungee jumping and dancing with actor Whoopie Goldberg.

Gifts ranged from a book detailing the most romantic places in New York to an original cartoon from Peanuts creator and artist Charles Schultz.

"I wouldn't presume to give Charlie any advice on what to do the day after this show ends he was a pro from the minute he walked in the door," said David Hartman, who handed co-hosting reins to Gibson in 1987, 11 years after helping to launch the show.

Hartman, who seemed to enjoy greeting staffers and friends from his old days on the show as much as feting Gibson, noted, "It's hard to describe what an overwhelming experience it is to do this job _ 10 hours a week on live television. It's a passionate experience."

Lunden, who left GMA just months earlier after 20 years on the show, says Gibson will probably take seven to eight months just to adjust his sleep schedule from the traditional 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.

"This job dictates so much of your life, once it ends your life in the world really starts to unfold," she adds. "Charlie really is a sentimental kind of guy, and I'm sure there's a sadness there he's keeping inside."

Walters, who spent 15 years co-anchoring the rival NBC morning show Today before switching to ABC, says she "has no idea" how ABC will reorganize prime time newsmagazines such as 20/20 and PrimeTime Live to feature Gibson.

"In many ways, a job like this is the best job on TV but leaving it really was the beginning of the rest of my life," she adds. "You don't realize the toll those odd hours take."

Once the cameras were turned off, executives hinted at the ratings trouble GMA has faced lately _ with current figures showing a dip in their viewership just as third-place rival CBS This Morning increases slightly. NBC's Today show scores ratings nearly as high as the other two combined.

In previous interviews, Gibson has noted he may have announced his intention to leave the job just before ABC executives could push him out the door, and the high hopes for McRee and Newman were almost palpable in the restaurant's elegant dining room Friday.

"Just looking at his legacy on tape, you can't help getting butterflies," says Newman, watching Gibson and McRee from the sidelines. "It's intimidating but I hope it'll be fun."

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