Hundreds of military personnel and their families had an opportunity to meet Jay Leno Sunday afternoon before his show at Northern Quest Casino.
Leno stopped by the Base Exchange, or BX, at Fairchild Air Force Base to shake hands, sign autographs and pose for pictures with excited fans.
“I hugged Jay Leno,” exclaimed Norma Gavin after meeting the comedian.
Her husband, Mike, was the first person in line to meet Leno, and he brought a picture of his 1951 Bentley for the talk show host, a car enthusiast himself, to autograph.
“It’s a stroke of luck, I guess,” Mike Gavin said about his place in line. “I tried to get here early.”
The visit had been scheduled for Jan. 26. The snowstorm that hit the area that night prevented Leno from performing and meeting the military personnel.
Sr. Master Sgt. Barbara Parbs said she stood in line in January, but “it’s a much more beautiful day to see him. I don’t know if I’ll get to shake his hand or just say thank you.”
Parbs got her chance to meet “The Tonight Show” host and came away excited.
“I don’t even remember (what I said), I was so nervous,” she said. “I was like a schoolgirl.” She did, however, thank him for coming.
The line to meet Leno went out the door, and folks laughed and chatted while they waited. Leno was about half an hour late to the appearance, but that didn’t seem to bother his fans.
“He’s been delayed, but he’s Jay Leno,” one of the officials at the event joked to the crowd.
Col. Roger Watkins said Leno has been gracious to troops at the base.
“We had someone that knew Mr. Leno’s staff and asked if he would be willing to say hi,” Watkins said.
When his appearance was canceled in January, Leno made a point to call Col. Tom Sharpy, the 92nd Air Refueling Wing Commander, on his cell phone to apologize. Sharpy has since been deployed, but his friends and family brought a life-sized cardboard cutout of the colonel for Leno to see.
Watkins added that Leno appeared free and committed to the full 45 minutes he had planned, even though he was late. He said the show at the casino, scheduled for 4 p.m., might start a little late in order for Leno to meet everyone.
“He’s really, really generous,” Watkins said.
Leno didn’t address the crowd as a whole. When he arrived in a Ford Excursion stretch limousine, he immediately started shaking hands and waving to the crowd, which burst into applause when he entered the building.
Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Jarrard, a Marine, brought his wife, Sandra, and children, Madalynn, 10, Bob, 9, and Joey, 4. Thomas Jarrard wasn’t so concerned about seeing Leno for himself – he was hoping the kids would get to talk to him, though.
“I see him on ‘Underdog,’ ” Joey said.
Thomas Jarrard did get a chance to talk to Leno during his family’s turn to have their picture taken with the host.
“I said, ‘Thank you for coming,’ ” Jarrard said. “It was very nice for the kids.”
Fans brought Leno patches and small gifts, which he accepted.
At 3 p.m., officials started hustling people through the line. Although there wasn’t a lot of time for Leno to spend with the people at the end of the line, he made sure he shook everyone’s hand before leaving about 20 minutes later.
When one fan thanked Leno for coming out, the comedian responded: “Oh, thank you. Thank you for your service. We appreciate it.”