Fans of Huell Howser gathered at Chapman University's Memorial Hall today to salute the late TV host and to watch as he was posthumously bestowed with a Doctorate of Arts degree in recognition of his life's work. The event also served as the official launch of the Huell Howser archives at the school, as well as the inaugural presentation of the Califorina's Gold scholarship.
The university drew a sizable crowd despite inclement weather, and Memorial Hall was nearly filled to capacity when president James Doti welcomed the audience. "Today we come to celebrate not Huell Howser, though we want to do that, but believe me -- that's the last thing he would want," Doti told the crowd. "What we are celebrating is the 'California's Gold' show and its impact on our society." Quoting Huell himself, Doti described "California's Gold" as "a good story, not overproduced or overthought but the kind of story that reveals the wonder of the human spirit and the richness of life in California, including its history, people, culture and natural wonders."
Upon officially bestowing the Doctorate of Arts degree, Doti took a moment to explain how it was that Chapman came to receive Huell's archives. To do so, Doti played a video of Huell's last public speech, in which Huell recalled how he had once passed through the city of Orange without stopping to see Chapman. Doti wrote Huell a letter to complain, and the resulting meeting sparked a friendship between Huell and Chapman. "When I first walked on the campus at Chapman, it was a transformational experience," Huell said in the recorded speech. "This is where I want to spend some time. This is where I want to donate shows. This is where I want to start a scholarship fund. This is where I want to donate 1,800 books about California. This will be my legacy... one hundred years from now, when there won't be a person walking on this planet who knows or cares who Huell Howser was [or] who has ever watched 'California's Gold' or who has any idea what that television series was all about."
Those in attendance included names familiar to ardent Huell fans, including lint artist Slater Barron, John Fosselman of Fosselman's Ice Cream, bunny museum proprietress Candace Frazee, whistling diva Carole Anne Kaufman, Aileen Watanabe from Pink's Hot Dogs and John Nese from Galco's Soda Pop Stop, as well as Huell's former assistant Ryan Morris and longtime cameraman Luis Fuerte. Among those introduced for the first time to Huell Howser fans was Mayra Gonzalez, the first Chapman student to benefit from the California's Gold Scholarship Fund. The first in her family to attend college and a native of Mexico who had to learn English at age 12 when she immigrated to the United States, Gonzalez told the crowd how she embraced an idea central to Huell's philosophy: gratitude for small things -- "the things we take for granted because we think we deserve them," in Gonzalez's words.
Following the addresses, the crowd dispersed to tour exhibits of "California's Gold" memorabilia, a re-creation of Huell's office and "found" art objects that Huell kept in his home. Additionally, the campus gym, which was filed with SoCal residents whose businesses and hobbies had been profiled on "California's Gold." The line for Pink's Hot Dogs snaked throughout the room and afforded those waiting a look at many of Huell's interview subjects.
Slater Barron, the "Lint Lady," said being interviewed by Huell meant more than just what viewers saw onscreen. "It made me happy that more people knew about my work, but also Huell became a friend," she said. "He came to one of the artist parties that I throw in my garden every year, and he'd call me on my birthday sometimes. I always felt like he was in my life. I still have some of his phone calls on the message machine on my telephone, so I can listen every once in a while. ... I just breaks my heart because now I can't invite him to lunch."
Galco's owner John Nese had similarly fond recollections about Huell. "He did so much for everybody," Nese began, "and I said 'What can I do for you?' And he just said 'Nothing.' And I said 'But I want to.' And he said 'I don't want anything. But maybe every once in a while, maybe I'll stop by and try a new flavor of soda pop.' And I said, 'Boy, Huell, whatever you want.'" Nese, who said he still gets recognized on the street from his two appearances on "California's Gold," praised Huell's way with ordinary people. In particular, he recalled how his mother, during the 2000 taping of the first Galco's episode, was making a sandwich and feeling so nervous that she was shaking. She told Huell, "I'm really nervous, and I wasn't this nervous on my wedding night." "[Huell] put his arm around her and gave her a big hug, and she calmed right down," Nese said.
Nese continued on to say something rather profound about the effect that Huell and his show had upon people. "Huell is the embodiment of what everyone wants to be," Nese said. "We live in a cut-throat world. There was a time, fifty, sixty years ago, where everyone was helping everyone else. And that's changed, and that's really disappointing. But I think Huell was that person who went out and showed people what America can be." Nese then motioned to the many people gathered in the Chapman gym. "Look at the people out here. It's raining. You're in Southern California on a Friday and it's raining. And yet all these people showed up."