During his tenure at the Kern County Museum, historian Jeff Nickell struck up a warm and lasting friendship with adventurer and bon vivant Huell Howser, who died Monday. Nickell, who now works as a coordinator at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, was featured on a number of Howser's television programs and has agreed to share his memories with our readers:
My first meeting with Huell Howser outside of a large group or on the phone was at the museum to film a segment of "Visiting with Huell Howser."
He asked me about the history of the Beale Memorial Clock Tower and I gave him some facts. Filming began and he told his camera man, "Cut; let's do that over."
We began touring the museum and I messed up and said "cut" or stuck my hands up in front of the camera to get another take. His response was, "We don't do that on this show. It is meant to be free-flowing. People make mistakes, and there's nothing wrong with it. So, don't do that again."
Thus, began our friendship and I am happy to say he probably filmed more episodes of his various television series in Kern County than anywhere else.
Huell Howser was the ultimate professional. Don't let his friendly and jovial personality lead you to believe otherwise. He knew exactly what he wanted his product to be and had things well-researched before he ever set foot on a site he intended to feature. Some people ask if Huell was just acting on his shows. The answer is no. He was just as friendly off camera as he was while the camera was rolling (I later learned, after my initial filming, that he meant what he said about wanting his shows to be natural; he insisted only that his intros be letter perfect).
My association with Huell -- his staff, at least -- goes back to 1995. As a person new to the museum profession at that time, I watched most of his shows, trying to soak up as much California history as possible. Little did I know then that much of what I would learn about my own backyard would come from working side by side with the man who, in many ways, would become one of my mentors.
Several years ago, Huell's producer called me and asked me to get a historical expert on the Tejon Ranch for an upcoming feature. I gave the producer a couple of names and also said he could call the Tejon Ranch because they have the experts. My phone rang a few minutes later and it was Huell:
"You must not have understood. I want you to do the show with me."
I told him that I knew only general information about the ranch, and he said, "Well, you'll know more after we're finished."
From that point until filming, my nights were filled with reading the "Saga of Rancho El Tejon," which I continued to study even in the back seat while driving the dirt roads of the ranch.
Huell told me, "You can stop reading because I know there is something I will ask that you won't know." He was kidding, and everything went great.
But Huell's efforts to shine the spotlight on Kern County went beyond his television programs. He had a genuine interest in preservation, agreeing to serve as the honorary co-chairman of the fundraising effort to bring the Lopez-Hill House to the museum from its location in Rosedale. Working with Huell on the relocation and restoration was awesome. He was truly inspired by the lives of the families who had lived in the house and in fact called it "the dream house."
During our Hill-Lopez fundraising drive, I was asked by the Museum Foundation if Huell might be willing to be part of an auction package: Dinner with Huell Howser. I called him and he said, "You don't ask for much do ya," before proceeding to agree to it.
Then, after a wonderful dinner at Wool Grower's he said, "OK, go ahead and ask." I asked what he was referring to and he said, "What you want me to do next -- I know you're already thinking about it."
I considered Huell Howser a friend and mentor. He gave me advice on a number of occasions. But mainly what I will always remember was the way he treated people -- genuine and friendly. It didn't matter if it was during a break filming an episode or in a crowded restaurant, he would take time to talk to people, take photos with them, and make them feel special.