“Hiya, Pat…it’s Merv Griffin.”

“G’bye, Pat…give my love to Lesly and the kids.”

Those were the first and last words uttered to me by Merv Griffin, and there were 26 years of joy in between.

Our first conversation occurred on the phone from my office at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles in November, 1981. It was, indeed, one of my early heroes, Merv Griffin, calling, and he wanted to know whether I was interested in taking over the hosting duties on a daytime game show he was producing for NBC called Wheel of Fortune.

The final words came in a quiet hospital room at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills just a couple of weeks ago.

As I was driving home from that last visit, I couldn’t help but think of our first in-person conversation when I expressed my reservations about doing Wheel. I told him I wasn’t sure I was cut out for game shows, and that I might be too low-key for the genre. “You just be yourself,” he said. “That’s why I want you. Do it the way you want to do it. You’ll be great.” Well, I don’t know that I’ve been great, but I do know he never once tried to change anything about me or the way I did the show. He rarely came to the set, and when he did, he was always full of compliments. He’d make reference to some comment I made on a particular show, and he’d convince me it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

When Merv sold Wheel (and Jeopardy!) in 1986, he became my ex-boss, and that’s when the fun really began. He was a dear friend to me and my family, and there was no better friend to have. First of all, Merv knew everyone. When you were with him, you rubbed shoulders with the most exciting and famous people on the planet. We vacationed together in some of the most glamorous spots in the world, and we stayed up very late laughing as long and hard as I’ve ever laughed in my life. No one ever told a story better, and no one ever had better stories to tell. And he was a great audience. That much-imitated laugh of his was completely genuine, and it breaks my heart that I will never hear it from him again.

Merv, of course, will live on through video tapes and through all the projects he created and the careers he furthered. There will be tributes to his show business savvy and stories of his warmth and generosity. But none of that will really be able to capture the bigger-than-life person that was Merv. The solar system of which he was the center was filled with bright stars who seemed to gravitate toward him. Whether on a TV show or in a living room, no one could make you feel more alive than Merv Griffin. His life was a celebration, and those of us who participated in it can’t help but feel blessed.

Merv would be very upset that his friends should be as sad as they are. He didn’t believe in sadness. He was upbeat, forward-looking and optimistic to the end. There will come a time, I suppose, when the sadness will give way to the wonderful memories, but I have trouble imagining that time right now. The man who changed my life, and then became such an important part of it, is gone.

I do know this: the conversation in heaven has gotten a lot more lively.