It is 4 in the morning in a Long Beach hotel room and I find myself writing a personal, likely overly sentimental essay I plan to submit to The Californian. I just finished reading a Los Angeles Times piece about the memorial service for Huell Howser. While I have contributed a number of opinion pieces over the years, until this morning I had never thought to submit a personal reflection. By the time I was getting through the first draft half an hour later, I was bawling like a baby. Why? Why did the passing of this man whom I have never met have such an effect on me?
Earlier, I had read that in the week following his death, Huell was one of the top three topics of writers of letters to the editor of the L.A. Times. Apparently, his impact was felt far and wide. I began to reflect on my reaction, and the reaction of my wife, Janet, to Herb Benham's piece in The Californian ("Howser made big, friendly impression," Jan. 13). I started to tear up when I read it. Janet was even less reserved.
Why did this man touch us so? He looked every bit the ex-Marine and bodybuilder he was. He was corny and kind and unpretentious. He never lost his Southern accent living in a state where most might consider it "unsophisticated." He dressed as if he bought his clothes at a secondhand store.
Maybe it was because he gave me, and a lot of other people like me, permission. Permission to love the places and people and things and jobs and activities in locations at which others turn up their noses. Permission to love Bakersfield. Carmel and Malibu and San Francisco and San Diego and Marin County are fabulous places to visit and to live. Most of us in California who don't live in places like these aspire to do so. There are so many things "wrong" with Bakersfield and other cities and towns in California. Yet we don't leave them. Why? Of course there are the economic reasons. But could there be other answers?
Like so many friends and colleagues, I came to Bakersfield in 1986 on the "two-year" plan. Bakersfield was a way station on the road to the next stop. After all, since being married, we had lived in Chicago, in Manhattan Beach, in Monterey, in Salt Lake City. Living near large cities, Lake Michigan, the ocean and the mountains had been fantastic. In every city, we had made friends and had great experiences.
Then to Bakersfield. Often smoggy, arid, two hours away from both beach and "culture." And we fell in love with the place and its good people. So unpretentious. So community-oriented.
I used to love driving to Arvin after academic senate meetings on Thursdays to join a friend, trying to learn how to play golf. The course was so-so but I remember the main appeal -- driving through corn and cotton and almond and grape and vegetable fields and past the potato processing plant and the quaintly agricultural town with the heavy Mexican influence.
It's great living in a city where we can take provost candidates from around the country to Wool Growers for dinner and have them delight in the uniqueness of Basque cuisine and appreciate the down-to-earth people who live here.
The Bakersfield segments Huell shot were folksy and clumsy and yet I relished them. Was it because they helped people outside of Bakersfield to experience Wool Growers and Dewar's and the Crystal Palace and Noriega's and appreciate Bakersfield a little more? Perhaps. But upon further reflection, I think I know why the segments and Huell's passing have touched me so deeply. I am likely just one of many who will be forever grateful to him for helping me to understand that in my home, in Bakersfield, I have truly found some of California's gold. God bless you, Huell. Rest in peace, good friend.
John Tarjan is a management professor at Cal State Bakersfield. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.