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When Johnny Carson was honored for his achievements as a late-night talk show host at the Kennedy Center, fellow broadcaster Walter Cronkite noted that 1993 had been a good year for the state of Nebraska.

There was the top-ranked Husker football team, Cronkite acknowledged, and one of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's most well-known graduates was receiving a lifetime achievement award.

"Johnny Carson has been, and we're revealing it here tonight, very generous over the years," Cronkite said. "And a few of the students just wanted to come here tonight and say, 'Thank you, Johnny.'"

That's when the Cornhusker Marching Band flooded the aisles and stage, playing "Dear Old Nebraska U" followed by the recognizable "Tonight Show" theme.

On Friday, with the announcement of a $20 million gift from the Johnny Carson Foundation to help create an academic program and facility focused on emerging media, the marching band once again trod onto the stage playing the Husker fight song.

The sight put a beaming smile on the face of Carson then, and it likely would have had the same effect now.

The gift from his foundation will help renovate about 30,000 square feet of the former Nebraska Bookstore building at 1300 Q St. into the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts. NU bought the building in June.

"Johnny Carson was an innovator of television, which was certainly the emerging media of his era," said Allan Alexander, president of the Carson Foundation. "Because of this and his legacy at Nebraska, we are especially pleased to support the education endeavors of many future generations who wish to follow in his footsteps as media innovators."

UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the university is grateful to the Carson Foundation for its ongoing commitment to the lasting legacy of Carson on its campus.

Graduates who complete coursework in the new program will be prepared with media arts skills that can be used in filmmaking, game design, television production, theater, advertising, social media, business, architecture, science, education and agriculture, among others.

The center is to open in 2018.

The $20 million gift is the latest from Carson and his foundation, which has provided funding to establish scholarships, renovate and build performing arts venues and create other programs at UNL.

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"We cannot thank the Carson Foundation's representatives enough for their care and vision," said NU Foundation President Brian Hastings.

Friday's announcement came on a sound stage built inside the former bookstore to resemble Carson's home on the "Tonight Show."

Perlman, who played the role of Carson behind the desk, interviewed Hastings and NU President Hank Bounds about the gift and Carson's legacy.

Growing up in rural Mississippi, Bounds said he knew who Carson was and where he was from.

"I remember staying up late watching the 'Tonight Show,' hearing Johnny talk about growing up in Nebraska, talking about the university," Bounds said. "I thought, 'This must be a really cool place.'"

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com. On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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