I answered the phone, "Hi, this is Huell..."
Even in 1989 before his half-hour programs made him legend, regular KCET viewers immediately recognized his voice from his five-minute Videolog which followed The Mac Neil/Lehrer News Hour each evening.
I had just photographed Huell a few days before at The Cobbler Factory as a feature in The Parson Foundation Annual Report, his underwriters. At his suggestion we made our way over to William and Lena Gore's shop adjacent to the Academy Theatre in Pasadena to recreate the segment for a still photo shoot. Even without tape and sound, Huell had every bit as much fun in making the photo tableaus as he clearly had shooting the broadcast.
At the end of the session, we talked briefly about our common connections at KCET and compared other notes. One area that intrigued him was recent work I had done for clients on the then emerging format S-VHS. "Can we talk some more about that later?" he queried.
In a town where promised follow-ups regularly evaporate, true to his word, in less than a week he followed up, calling a little after dinner. With a baby and bottle on one arm and the phone cradled on my shoulder we started the first of a couple of conversations about my experience with the compact format and how he might use it for an upcoming trip to Moscow. This he did on two trips before and after the coup that ended the Soviet Union and brought Boris Yeltsin to power. Before California's Gold and Visiting with Huell Howser were these two episodes, almost pilots if you will, featuring Huell as a tightly budgeted one-man production unit highlighting the turbulent passage of Glasnost from the person on the street view point. Prior to bringing California to Californians, he broke down Cold War walls by introducing us face-to-face to those who for decades had been described as enemies. In retrospect this is pure Huell. They are still available for sale at his website as two stand alone segments.
I enjoyed the opportunity to overlap with him on a few other occasions when our paths crossed at KCET and elsewhere in the community. One time on the lot in Hollywood he told me how he was boycotting the pledge break. Why? He felt there was no firewall between programming needs and capital projects so he would not make on air pitches for funds that would likely end up building the new parking structure. Of course he could do that, he had become the station's most recognizable face and voice and his integrity wouldn't let him do otherwise.
People ask me if he was "real." Yes, I answer. In my brief experience and encounters he was the same one-on-one as he appeared on camera. When my son relayed the news of his passing, I was struck by California's loss too soon and remembered our warm conversations, as well as, those two episodes from Russia that were the bridge between his five-minute shorts and in-depth stories. He introduced us to ourselves revealing our breadth and diversity though our own stories and visits to our communities--a legacy and gift to the entire Golden State. Huell will be missed.