Monday, Dec. 25, 2006

Steve Irwin

I will always remember Steve Irwin as the world's biggest 9-year-old. Every time we met, it was like a family reunion — a big hug, some jousting, and then he would say in that unmistakable Australian accent, "Hello, mate. How's the wife? How's the family? Everything good then?" And everything was good.

Steve connected magically with kids. He appealed to their natural curiosity. "There I was," I heard him tell a group of 7- or 8-year-olds, "looking eye to eye with the meanest croc I'd ever seen." At that moment all the video games and TV shows in the world could not have diverted their attention.

He called himself the Crocodile Hunter, but Crocodile Preserver was more like it. He taught kids — and all of us — that not just the cuddly animals are special. And he was the best ambassador Australia ever had.

Leno is the host of the Tonight Show