Top of the Morning

01/03/2002 AT 03:41 PM EST

Katie Couric could not take the call. Her agent Alan Berger, on the phone on Dec. 18 with an urgent message, simply had to wait. And wait. And wait. Until at last at 7 p.m. the Today co-host finished taping an interview in New Jersey, hopped into a company car waiting to take her back to her Manhattan apartment and dialed Berger's number on her cell phone. When Berger heard Couric ask, "What's going on?" he could hardly contain his excitement. After weeks of what he calls "heated debate and back-and-forth" with NBC, he wasted no time: "Katie, we have a deal! We're done!"

And what did the winner of $65 million over the next 4 1/2 years have to say about her newfound status as the world's highest-paid TV news personality? Not a thing. "All I heard was dead air," says Berger.

Had the small-town-kid-made-good passed out? Had she tossed the phone and headed straight for the nearest shopping mall? Nope. Her cell line had simply died. But when Couric, 45, called back to talk over the contract -- which allows her to stay with Today but also gives her free rein to explore other possibilities within NBC -- there was no mistaking her reaction. "She was thrilled and excited and overwhelmed," says Berger. For the record, though, the famously frugal star has still not gone on any shopping spree. "Katie will spend her money on the same thing she's been spending it on for the last 10 years," says a pal with a laugh. "Nothing. She puts it in the bank."

Most of it, anyway (she does, after all, live in a $3.2 million Park Avenue apartment). The fact is, while Couric has jazzed up her look in the 10-plus years she has been on Today -- her prim suits and boyish hairstyles giving way to leather skirts, sleek high heels and longer, blonde-streaked hair -- she is at heart the same sensible beat reporter who until August spent 13 years driving the same Honda (her mother, says a friend, found the 2001 red Ford Thunderbird convertible she replaced it with "a little flashy") and who listens with equal intensity to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talk war strategy or to daughter Carrie, 6, kid sister of Ellie, 11, discuss an episode of Rugrats. This past year in particular has brought TV's most famous working mom both heartache and joy. In October, less than four years after her husband, Jay Monahan, died at age 42 of colon cancer, she once again lost a family member: her sister Emily, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 54. But this time she did not face grief alone; at her side through it all was high-powered multimillionaire TV producer Tom Werner, 51, her boyfriend of more than a year.

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