I'm still in shock over the news that Huell Howser, the greatest Californian since Hiram Johnson, has left us. He passed away last night of natural causes, leaving behind a legacy of Cali love that my alma mater, Chapman University, will guard forever.
All the pundits of the Golden State will weigh in on who Huell was, what Huell meant, blah blah blah. All I can offer are personal anecdotes that just shows what a generous, wonderful man the Tennessee native truly was, anecdotes involving two of my favorite things: the OC Weekly, and pissing off OC Republicans.
In 2008, Anaheim activist Cynthia Ward contacted me to ask if perhaps I wanted to sit down with Huell for an interview previewing his show on Anaheim? Hell ya--but why us? Turns out Huell was a fan of this infernal rag and wanted to give us the exclusive over the Orange County Register, a paper he didn't like AT ALL for reasons he wouldn't disclose. As I noted in the story that followed, my interview was jumbled because we did it in public--what was supposed to be 15 minutes at El Pollo Fino with Huell turned into two hours of Huell greeting fans: judges, cops, cholos, Honduran immigrants, everyone. And Huell was genuinely enthusiastic meeting everyone--not once did he tire, not once did he ask to move the interview somewhere else.
During that interview, we talked about his love of OC--at that point, he had done at least 20 of them, on subjects ranging from the cottages at Crystal Cove to the blimp hangars in Tustin. And I made sure to ask Huell about my all-time favorite moment involving him: when he called into KPCC-FM 89.3's AirTalk with Larry Mantle while some idiot OC Republican was whining about how the California Coastal Commission would not approve the 241 Toll Road Extension through Trestles, a place Huell had profiled in his show. He called in and schooled the pendejo, saying Trestles "wasn't set aside for a park until something better came along; it was set aside FOREVER."
Now I remember the idiot Republican: former Mission Viejo councilmember Lance Maclean. He called Huell's comments "alarmist." As I wrote then:
Saying Huell Howser is an alarmist when it comes to California state parks is like saying Vin Scully overreacts during Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasts, that John Wooden cheers too much whenever the UCLA Bruins play at Pauley. Lance: You don't question Huell when it comes to California treasures; you shut up, learn, and hope you can ever have an ATOM of the respect Howser commands amongst Californians.
That brouhaha enraged the 241's advocates, and the Transportation Corridor Authority (the pendejos who run OC's toll roads) subsequently tried to paint Huell as unethical and even went as far as to try and get his show on San Onofre State Beach delayed unless they got their side of the story in his show. HA! Ol' Huell loved that he antagonized those idiots so.
"I don't get involved in politics, but San Onofre State Beach is a park," he told me then. "As far as I'm concerned, it's sacred land. When you start chipping away at parks, the concept of state parks falls apart."
After I interviewed him, I remarked off-hand that I was having a book signing for my latest book at the time: Orange County: A Personal History. He said he'd go, and lo and behold, he did. When I asked if I could introduce him, he declined. "This is your night; I'll be at the back of the room," he said. And he did. He even went to the after-party, which he stayed long into the night, greeting his legions.
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We kept in touch over the subsequent years, mostly him sending me nice notes on stories he liked in the Weekly. I last saw him in person in 2010 at the Hollywood Farmer's Market. He sat down in a booth my chica and I were at, hanging out and taking questions from adoring fans--and always keeping that wonderful enthusiasm.
Rest in peace, Huell. May you show St. Peter the gold of heaven he takes for granted...