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huellI must say the tribute to the late Huell Howser at Chapman University, to whom he left his legacy, was a day I will always cherish. Huell was such a special man and a powerful presence in his unassuming way. God really blessed him with an amazing way of relating to people, as he did in every episode of his beloved California’s Gold television series.

The day, which Chapman titled, “A Golden Legacy: Celebrating the California’s Gold Collection and Scholarship Fund and the Huell Howser Television Archive,” was open to the public and saw an estimated 2,000 people visit the Chapman campus to honor this special man. Beginning in Memorial Hall, Chapman President Jim Doti brought tears to my eyes more than once as he spoke about Huell’s genuine enthusiasm for life and the world around him. Doti said Huell had discovered Chapman in 2007 when he had invited him to tour the campus after he had missed doing so after filming a California’s Gold segment in Old Towne Orange, “thus kindling a mutual love-fest between Huell and our university community,” Doti said. That bond, Doti continued, prompted many generous donations, including show memorabilia, papers, two houses (including Huell’s famous Volcano House near Barstow), his collection of “found objects,” and his tapes of his more than 900 episodes of California’s Gold. In a video filmed when Huell spoke at the university last year, he said, “When I first walked onto Chapman, it was an immediate transformational experience for me. I knew this is where I wanted to leave my legacy.”

Another generous gesture Huell made to Chapman was to establish a student endowment, and junior Mayra Gonzalez, the first in her family to attend college, was introduced by Doti as the first California’s Gold Scholarship recipient. Another touching moment was when Doti presented Huell’s posthumous honorary doctorate to the legendary broadcaster’s cameraman Luis Fuerte, who was with him for 12 years.

I found that Huell was a successful journalist before he came to live in California, fell in love with the state and decided to launch a television program lauding the Golden State. He was a former national correspondent for Entertainment Tonight and served high-profile stints as a TV reporter in New York City and Los Angeles. Interestingly, before his television career took off, he had been an aide to former Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn. But, it was California that won his heart, and many of the people he featured on those California’s Gold episodes attended the tribute to him at Chapman. The Hutton Sports Center drew people to meet Slater Barron, “The Lint Lady,” Bunny Museum proprietor Candace Frazee, whistling champ Carole Anne Kaufman, and the Soap Museum’s Dali Yu. Food samplings from Huell’s favorite eateries were offered, including Los Angeles’ iconic hot dog purveyor, Pink’s Hot Dogs, which featured a chili cheese dog called the “Huell Dog,” Village Pizzeria in LA, Stan’s Corner Donut Shop in Westwood (Huell’s favorite was the peanut butter stuffed donut), and Fosselman’s Ice Cream in Alhambra.

Guests could also tour Leatherby Libraries and see a re-creation of Huell’s office with his desk and editing bay and enjoy a display of memorabilia and fan gifts, as well as view pieces from his personal art collection he called “found-art” from his many travels. I must tell you, the day was cold and rainy, but it didn’t stop Huell’s many fans from standing in that long line outside the library.

It was also outdoors that I saw the “American,” a restored 1902 horse-drawn steam fire engine, sponsored by the California State Firefighters’ Association. I talked with Coto de Caza resident Dave Hubert, whose wife Barbara gave him the fire engine on their 25th anniversary, and he restored it with their son Mark. You’ve probably guessed by now that Huell came to Orange County and did a California’s Gold episode with the Huberts and the restored fire engine. I loved grabbing a photo with Dave and the fire engine’s Dalmatian, “Blaze.” And, I loved even more the saying on the side of the fire engine, “Have fun in Heaven, Huell. We are now expecting a program called ‘Heaven’s Gold.'” And, that, my friends, is the essence of this extraordinary man!

Selected photos from Huell Howser Productions and Chapman’s John Saade