Huell Howser, a fixture of public television in California, has died at 67. Howser hosted several public television programs, the most popular being California's Gold, which celebrated the state's unique stories and natural beauty.
Howser died Sunday night of natural causes, reports the Long Beach Press Telegram, citing a KCET representative who also says his death was "a complete surprise."
A native of Gallatin, Tenn., who moved to Los Angeles in 1981, Howser never discarded his Southern drawl — and he never lost his enthusiasm for finding the stories hidden in dimestores, historical sites, and state parks that many of his viewers found infectious.
"His upbeat boosterism accompanied an appearance that was simultaneously off-kilter and yet somehow cool with a hint of retro — a thick, square mane of white hair, sunglasses, shirts that showed off a drill sergeant's build and huge biceps, and expressions that ranged from pleasantness to jaw-dropping wonder with some of his discoveries. Often, he wore shorts."
As Braxton notes, Howser's perpetually buoyant spirit and folksy manner stretched beyond his public TV work; he inspired several caricatures of himself, including at least one that appeared on The Simpsons.
After a series of short segments called Videolog premiered in which Howser told the stories of everyday Californians, the idea matured into the longer-format California's Gold — and it endured for more than 19 years of production, according to his website.
One noteworthy early segment was titled "Elephant Man" — in which he told the story of an 80-year-old elephant trainer's reunion with Nita, an elephant that he had first acquired in 1955.
In that segment, which aired in 1988, Howser and the former trainer, Charlie Franks, went to visit Nita at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, 15 years after Franks had donated her to the facility. At Howser's request, Franks called to the animal — and from 50 yards away, she broke away from the other elephants to stride over to him and take a handful of candy.
"I gotta tell you. I was standing there watching this, and I was breaking out in goosebumps," Howser told his audience. "It was like they hadn't been apart for a day."
In a more recent segment, Howswer swam at Hearst Castle's famed Neptune Pool — an act that he called "the dream of a lifetime."
On its website, KCET posted a statement honoring Howser.
"From pastrami sandwiches and artwork woven from lint to the exoticism of cactus gardens and the splendor of Yosemite — he brought us the magic, the humor and poignancy of our region," it read. "We will miss him very much."
One reader who commented on that story called Howser "truly one of the few people I have met that is even nicer in person than they appear on television. Los Angeles, California, the television industry, and the world have lost a true 'gentle man.' "
Correction at 10:15 a.m. ET, Jan. 8: Earlier, we said the Press Telegram is from "Long Island." The right location is "Long Beach." We've corrected the post above.