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You never knew where Huell Howser would turn up. Huell's image on a milk bottle

Not just the unicoast but all of California was his beat.  A city, small town, remote mountain or desert locale, or vessel in the coastal or inland waters could offer a good story for his public-TV show California’s Gold. Over the years I caught episodes about California’s biggest trees, a mining tunnel, living-history sites, an elderly immigrant who daily made yogurt the old-country way, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s yacht, pink-and-blue striped diaper-service trucks.

Uh boy, I thought when I first encountered the folksy vagabond on San Francisco‘s KQED more than 20 years ago. Another celebrity-worshipping aggrandizement of California as the glitzy center of an otherwise lackluster universe.

Was I ever wrong. Howser’s decades-long road trip showed us that some of the best things about California aren’t rarefied or splashy. He found the gold right in our backyards, or along the way where we might have missed it. Making my own unicoastal treks, I continued to enjoy glimpses of gold, and Howser’s familiar friendly smile, on KCET in Los Angeles.

Howser wasn’t the most polished interviewer, often bubbling over in his enthusiasm instead of letting his guests talk. But that can be forgiven, for that enthusiasm was infectious and fun. His trademark “That’s amazing!” told us this was a man who loved what he was doing.

So I was surprised to read late last year that Howser had quietly retired at 67. His death a few weeks later was a shock. Immediately articles and commentaries began to appear that told of Howser’s contribution to the lives of his colleagues, friends, and fans who never met him.

One nugget of California’s gold that Howser frequently mentioned I unfortunately never saw: “Over here, Louie,” he’d say, and his intrepid cameraman would get the shot, even if it meant taking the camera deep underground in an elevator the size of a broom closet. I often wished the camera would turn around just once so we could see Louie, too.

Huell Howser at the Nisei Week Grand Parade, L...

Huell Howser at the Nisei Week Grand Parade, Los Angeles, California, 19 August 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)