OH, HE was corny, sure, with his aw-shucks demeanor, broad Tennessee accent and obvious questions. Nobody uttered more stupefied "wows" or found the mundane as "amaaaazing" as Huell Howser. Even babies are more cynical.

But let's not be cynical about his lack of cynicism. By all accounts, Howser, who died Sunday at age 67, was genuine, curious and genuinely curious. Everyone can mimic him, but the cliche holds true: He was often imitated, never duplicated.

I never met him, and rarely watched him, but I respected his eye for good local stories and his ability to connect with average folks.

He was known in the Inland Valley - not just by those who saw him on "California's Gold," "Road Trip" or his other PBS shows, but by those he met during the taping of segments here.

For instance, there was his 1994 visit to Ontario's Graber Olive House. He paired Graber with another business founded in 1894, Knott's Berry Farm, for a segment titled "Olives and Berries."

"He was just as nice as he seems on TV. He spoke to everyone. He was so personable and nice," said Connie Hernandez of Graber's.

At the time, Hernandez was leaving Graber's for another job - she's since returned - and another employee, Sue Oxarart, got Howser to tape a few moments on camera for Hernandez's benefit, walking on the gravel driveway and saying to the camera, "Everyone's going to miss you, Connie."

"I have my own personal Huell Howser video," Hernandez said. No wonder she came back.


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Oxarart impressed Howser so much, he hired her. She spent a year in the mid-1990s as a part-time assistant.

Preserving the spontaneity of the moment rather than trying to fake a reaction was one of his secrets, Oxarart said.

"Don't tell me the story now!" Howser would say to interview subjects as they met. "Wait until the camera is on, so I'm experiencing it for the first time just like the viewer is."

He was always open to ideas. Once at a restaurant in L.A., he asked a table of seniors if he could join them. They turned out to be retired circus performers. One was an elephant trainer who said his elephant was at the Wild Animal Park in San Diego and that he hadn't seen her in years.

"Can you be ready at 5:30 tomorrow morning?" Howser asked. He drove the man to the animal sanctuary and, when the man whistled, the elephant came running and nuzzled her old trainer with her trunk.

Oxarart was with him on personal appearances at KCET stores in shopping malls, where he would greet long lines of fans. He would shake so many hands he would pack his hand in ice on the drive home, but he hated to disappoint anyone.

She told him about the Filippi Winery, then located in Fontana, which sparked a segment on winemaking.

In his tour during crush season, Howser was fascinated by the winery's enormous bins of freshly pressed grapes, seeds and skins, chilled with carbon dioxide and emitting a mist.

"Can I put my hand in it?" Howser suddenly asked winemaker Nick Karavidas, who assented. Howser exclaimed how cold the bin was, withdrew his juice-covered arm and asked what now.

"You can lick it if you want," Karavidas suggested. Howser, always game, did.

Howser lived in L.A. but had a weekend home in Twentynine Palms, which meant he drove through here frequently. On one visit in 1999, he had dinner at winery vice president Gino Filippi's home and they spoke by phone occasionally after that.

"On TV he did all the talking and you kind of went with it. He had an understanding of how to convey the message to the viewers," Filippi said. "One on one, he was perhaps more serious."

Howser's interest in history was genuine, Filippi said.

"He was upset about the demise of Guasti. He shared with me how upsetting it was to drive on the 10 past the airport and to look over and see what looked like a war-torn village from what it was," Filippi said. "He thought there should have been an effort to protect it under the state."

Jerry Tessier was another interview subject. In 2007, Howser taped a segment at a citrus packing house in Claremont that Tessier's company had adapted for commercial and residential use.

The contrast between the old and the new seemed to tickle Howser, who emphasized that point repeatedly. While proud of his project, the low-key Tessier was faced with someone outwardly more excited about it than he was.

"You'd think, he's got to be faking this, because no one could be that interested. It reminds you you should be more enthusiastic about things," Tessier said. "That's why people liked watching him, because he had that sense of wonder."

They had dinner afterward and Tessier said Howser wasn't much different off-camera, although his accent was less broad. A couple of times after that, Howser would phone him:

"Jerry? Huell! I was just thinking of you. I was passing Indian Hill Boulevard and thought of you and your lovely packing house..."

If his TV persona was slightly exaggerated for the cameras, it seems to have been close to his own.

Allyn Scheu sold him plates of steel for a fence around his desert home. Howser came by his Upland office.

"He was very friendly. I probably chatted with him for an hour," Scheu said.

Howser taped several segments at the L.A. County Fair: the Spam cooking contest, the old locomotive engines, the miniature railroad.

"He was very warm. People felt like they knew him," said Sharon Autry of Fairplex.

He visited the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, the Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino, the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and Folk Music Center, both in Claremont, the Guasti Winery in Ontario and the Kaiser Steel Museum in Rancho Cucamonga, among other places.

One well-loved show was about the Christmas star in San Antonio Heights, a giant lighted star that can be seen for miles and which was rebuilt by neighbors in time for Christmas after a devastating fire.

"He showed up with absolutely no script whatsoever," homeowner Ken Petschow recalled. When told of the star's long history, he got Petschow to phone the original owners.

"How fast can you be here? Huell Howser wants to talk to you," Petschow told them. They arrived within an hour.

That 2003 episode, with its theme of Christmas and community, was said to be the one that garnered the most viewer feedback and sold the most copies on video.

Petschow imitated Howser's drawl from a phone conversation about the response: "You just never can tell what people are going to like."

True, but as his body of work shows, Huell Howser had a pretty good idea what people liked.

Speaking of amazing, David Allen is paid to write Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at david.allen@inlandnewspapers.com or 909-483-9339, read his blog at dailybulletin.com/davidallenblog, check out facebook.com/davidallencolumnist and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.