December 23, 2013 12:00 PM

After more than 50 years on the air, interviews with 8 sitting presidents and nearly 17 seasons hosting the daytime talk show The View, Barbara Walters is ready for a change of pace. She thinks. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like once I retire [in May]. I’ve worked ever since I graduated college,” says the famed news anchor, 84, sitting down to an interview at her Upper West Side office. “But I want to leave while people will still say, ‘She’ll be missed.’ Not ‘Is she still here?’ ” With her final Most Fascinating People special airing Dec. 18 on ABC, the TV legend sat down with PEOPLE’s Charlotte Triggs to discuss her favorite family memories, on-the-job triumphs and the legacy she hopes defines her career.

MISSION TO CUBA

During her 1977 interview with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, “I spent 10 days with him, traveled through the mountains and held his gun in my lap,” Walters says. “People thought we had a romance, but we never did.”

ON THE RANCH

Walters joined President Ronald Reagan at his ranch near Santa Barbara in 1981. “This was where he got to be a cowboy,” Walters recalls, “but neither Nancy Reagan nor I loved it there. It was very cold, and he had the scroungiest Jeep.”

SISTERLY LOVE

Walters (left) and her older sister Jacqueline (in the ’30s) had a close bond. “My mother used to dress us alike and spend hours doing our hair,” she recalls. “She was developmentally challenged. I loved her dearly.”

A UNIQUE UPBRINGING

Walters’s father (center, with, at right, Jacqueline, mom Dena and Barbara, ca. 1950) ran the N.Y.C. nightclub the Latin Quarter. “I knew all the stars. My friends envied me. But I wished my father were a dentist and had a more typical schedule,” Walters recalls.

WORKING MOM

Walters (with daughter Jackie ca. 1971) “would have to leave for work before breakfast, but I always made sure I was home for dinner. We would play together for hours. It was happy times.”

MAKING HISTORY

Put on-air as a temporary replacement for “Today Girl” Maureen O’Sullivan, Walters (with Jack Lescoulie, left, and Hugh Downs in 1963) “refused to be called that” and was later named cohost in 1974. “After me, every woman was a cohost. I feel good about that.”

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