Huell Howser made me proud to be a Californian. More importantly, he made me proud to be a resident of the Inland Empire.

Howser, who died Sunday, explored every corner of the Golden State as host of the beloved public TV show "California's Gold," but he always returned home to the place he called home, the Southern California desert.

Howser was a Californian who could have lived anywhere, but he chose to live here with us Inlandians. He kept homes in Twentynine Palms in San Bernardino County and in Palm Springs in Riverside County.

Very affirming.

I am going to miss Huell Howser very much. Oh, I still will tell my favorite Huell Howser stories, but now they will be tinged with sadness. I probably still will imitate his unrestrained Tennessean accent, but it won't seem as funny anymore.

Lots of people love to imitate Huell Howser's voice and expressions. I read once that he had expressed modest surprise at being invited to perform a guest voice role on a "Simpsons" TV episode. Matt Groening, the show's creator, said, " Are you kidding? Everyone loves your voice. We imitate it all the time in our writers meetings."

Here's my own personal favorite Huell Howser story:

I had the rare privilege of imitating him to his face.

Many summers ago, he and I were among the faces in the crowd at the annual Big Bear Discovery Center Gala on the north shore of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains.

He was there with a gentleman friend, and I approached the two of them at one point, with my hand extended, and announced, "I have ALWAYS wanted to shake the hand..."

His friend took a step forward, extending his hand to meet mine. Without missing a beat I continued, "...of the guy standing next to Huell Howser!"

They both laughed. Now that I had Huell Howser's attention, I went on to to gush, starstruck fashion, about how much I enoyed the "California's Gold" series.

And darn it if I didn't lapse into Hower's accent and speech patterns, with lots of hillbilly exuberance and huge exclamation points: "Golly!" "Oh my gosh!" "This is unbeLIEVEable!"

He reproved me, good-naturedly: "Well, I don't think it's very nice to make fun of my accent!"

Chastened, I assured him it was involuntary and that it was a form of homage, not disrespect. It was a lame apology, perhaps, but he accepted it, I think, and he did laugh heartily.

Believe me, it was an honor to make Huell Howser laugh those couple of times. Heaven knows, he made me laugh and smile and cry and thrill and chill and ooh and ahh a million times with his storybook adventure trips around California.

Over the years he shot many, many episodes in the Inland Empire. The Graber Olive House in Ontario, the Lincoln Shrine in Redlands, the old Kaiser Steel works in Fontana

Doing shows here made sense, after all. This is where he lived.

Plus, his intrepid longtime videographer, Luis Fuerte, also is a resident of the Inland Empire. In fact, the two of us have become buddies. We're due for lunch soon. I think it's my treat this time.

Once upon a long time ago, I was in a visitor center at Joshua Tree National Park. I got into a conversation about Huell Howser with one of the rangers there. I think it started with remarks I made upon finding a couple of DVD "California's Gold" episodes available for sale there.

Well, the ranger, perhaps inappropriately, gave me precise directions to Huell Howser's house in nearby 29 Palms. Of course, I drove out there.

I was surprised by while I saw. It wasn't really a house. It was a compound, a fortress, surroundeded by an outlandishly intimidating fence of dire wrought iron.

The sight of it disappointed me at first. Huell Howser was all about the beauties of Califoria, but this place was ugly.

Then, I changed my mind. This was distinctive, one-of-a-kind, like Howser himself. He did so many episodes about Californians who built homes out of trash, or in underground caves, or on cliffs among the clouds.

It seemed appropriate that his own house would be stamped with a very individualistic signature. 

And, I must say, I have heard early rumors that, at his own behest, it may be transformed into a public place, a vistors center of its own, where everyone can enjoy the memories and artifacts of Huell Howser's thousands of sojourns throughout the Golden State.

If true, such a place would definately become considered, and let me phrase this just right, with just the right accent, "a PART of CaliFORNia's GOLD!"

Read more John Weeks at http://sbsun.com/johnweeks. Contact him by email at john.weeks@inlandnewspapers.com.