If there is a song that expresses the understanding and pride Whitney Houston’s church and childhood community had for her it is, “I Will Always Love You.” They never let her go. Never stopped thinking about her. And always held on to their vivid memories of her as a kind and thoughtful person.
“She was like a daughter. I watched her grow up,” a long-time member of The New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J. reminisced outside a memorial service for the late star on Sunday. That was all he would say, declining to give his name to AP reporter Bruce Shipkowski, who watched the elderly man slowly enter the sanctuary.
“He was a man in his 70’s,” Shipkowski told theGrio, “And you could see in his eyes he was trying to be strong. For him it was a personal tragedy.”
Many members of Houston’s family church were too mournful to say much about the young Whitney Houston, as reporters gathered outside the Sunday service. They were proud to have supported her when she stood before them honing her voice into the extraordinary talent the world would come to know. However, loyalty prevented them from answering questions they felt intruded into private feelings for her.
“The family shared Whitney with the world,” Pastor Joe Carter said — but for the congregation of Newark and East Orange, she still belonged to them.
“For the people who knew her, they see it as a death in the family. She was part of the neighborhood, part of the church,” Tina Susman, national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times said, who stood with the media outside the church as regular and returning members braved sub-freezing weather to remember one of their own.
“No one said that if she stayed in Newark she wouldn’t have died. [But w]hen she left, [many thought] she was on a good path,” Susman added after visiting Houston’s solidly middle-class neighborhood in East Orange where she went to school.
That was also the opinion of Houston’s high school principal, Henry W. Hamilton, who knew the entire family well and shared his memories with Susman.
“Whitney Houston,” he explained, “belonged to a family that was very active in the school. Her mother was a member of the PTA. Whitney didn’t stand out. She wasn’t one of the ‘it’ girls. Just an average teenager, who had friends, but didn’t want to be the center of attention.”
“I didn’t expect Whitney Houston to become a star,” he admitted, even though she sang in the choir and the chorus. He did, however, remember one afternoon in 1978 when she was very excited about her modeling portfolio. But it was her older brother, a promising athlete, who the staff tapped for future greatness. The principal confessed he didn’t expect that Houston would, “become a great singer — the greatest singer in the world.”
Hamilton showed Susman pictures of Houston in his offices. They included images commemorating the artist’s return in 1997 when the school was renamed in her honor. This past Sunday, the school’s flag flew at half-staff outside the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts. As at her Newark church, those who were treasuring the singer’s memory quietly braced below freezing temperatures and harsh winds to leave tributes, flowers and recall what she meant to them.
“Her start was a beautiful, innocent thing,” said Hassan Munford, who told Susman he attended the school now named for Houston and who grew up in the same neighborhood. “I remember when she first made it, she brought a red drop-top and drove it down Dodd Street,” Munford remembered about the star. As did others, Munford left flowers outside the school on Sunday.
The “good path” Susman said Houston was on as she headed towards a singing career was echoed by a former classmate, Dr. Maria Pane. Whitney and Pane were both students at Mount Saint Dominic Academy, a small all-girls Catholic high school in Caldwell, New Jersey, the second high school Whitney attended. They both graduated with the class of 1981.
Houston was at that point exhibiting her potential as an entertainer and blossoming into a stunning beauty. Her high school class took note and voted her the most likely to succeed.
Still, Houston’s kindness and modesty were central to her character, according to Pane. “She was one of the nicest and one of the quietest girls,” Pane said. “She didn’t stand out. Always very sweet. She was beautiful and very poised.”
Houston was so modest, it was a while before the small group of senior girls knew the stunner modeled for Seventeen magazine.
“Back then Seventeen was the magazine every girl wanted to read. To know that Whitney was modeling for Seventeen, that was something that every girl dreamed of.”
It was the Academy’s mission to groom their students to become responsible and successful adults. Pane, who treats premature infants at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson, Maryland, said this is what Houston’s mother wanted for her, too, even as her daughter’s talents and inevitable fame were already obvious to those around her.
“Her mother wanted her to be in a safe environment. To be a regular teenage girl. The school provided a lot of motivation. We were encouraged to strive for good grades, good morals and good ethics.”
Pane says what she recalls most is Houston’s positive attitude. “We knew she was destined for something great. I think the school prepared her well and it’s unfortunate that people along the way sidetracked her.”
“We both took the 29 bus down Bloomfield Ave. It was kind of fun going through the school day and waiting for the bus together,” Pane remembers. “She was so beautiful. She was someone we looked up to.”By the time the class of 1981 was preparing for graduation, Houston’s talent was also well known in the Philadelphia record industry. Nationally, with Philadelphia as one of the prominent creative centers, the recording industry was undergoing a rapid revolution in the way music was commercialized and artists were promoted. Leaders in the changing industry were also watching the future star grow up with increasing interest, like the church, community and schools that had groomed her.
Joe Tarsia, founder of the legendary Sigma Sound Studios in New York and Philadelphia first saw Houston in 1969 when she came into his newly established outfit with her mother.
“She was a little kid at the time. Her mother had a group called Sweet Inspiration. Gamble and Huff were my clients. She was tagging along with her mom. It was just very casual,” Tarsia said. “In 1969 I was new on the scene myself and to have named acts come to the studio at the time was very impressive. I think she was a very special talent. She was just a kid, but the genes were obviously there.”
Tarsia’s second memory of Houston was in 1986, and it was not a casual tag along with her mother.
“When she was at Sigma in 1986, working on her second album titled Whitney, she was working with a producer by the name of Michael Masser. He was like a slave driver and I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown,” Tarsia recalled. “She hung in there and worked. It was overwhelming. It was the talk of the people in the studio. He, [Masser,] must have been looking for perfection. And she endured. And the story was that she was literary wiped out at the end of the session.”
“From the early ‘70s and onwards, I didn’t know anyone who didn’t have some drug habit,” Tarsia added about the environment Whitney was working in. “The industry made it available, and the weak people fell by the wayside.”
Even as Houston rocketed overnight to international stardom, the hometown girl image stayed with her according to Chuck Gamble, nephew of Kenneth Gamble of the hit writing duo Gamble and Huff. He recalled meeting her in 2008, and even though she was firmly established for him as a “mega star around the earth,” her roots were still a strong part of who she was.
“Her personality showed that she was a hometown girl,” Gamble said. “I think that she saw herself as that. She had a strong family background. She knew that when the music stopped she could always go back to her hometown. [A h]ometown girl, but with a legendary mother.”
Gamble says that because of her spectacular talent, “She went to a level that she was probably not prepared for.” He wonders whether others questioned her capacity to function well at that meteoric level.
Another music legend, Kal Rudman (known in the business as “The Man With the Golden Ears), knew Houston as a youth who, because of her family’s music credentials, was able to walk through doors others struggled to get open.
“Her whole family was in the industry as the highest level. As a child, her family took her along. Everyone knew she was her mother’s daughter,” Rudman said. “It was normal to bring her to recording sessions. Her family took her up to the offices and recording studios. [The] first time I saw her she 18 and was absolutely stunning. Her voice, her range, the acrobatics she could do with her voice. All of which was honed because of her involvement with the church.”
And it was the church, her schools and her community that have honored her with their memories.
“The church was so proud of what she had attained,” Shipkowski surmised from talking to members. “They understood that she was human and she was going to make errors. They wanted her to be well again. They wanted this for her so bad.”
“I didn’t get the impression that she was considered a diva in their eyes,” Susman concluded after traveling Houston’s life path in New Jersey. “I didn’t hear anybody give any hints of that. They really seem to view her as a local girl made good.
“They were genuinely sad,” she continued. “Their attitude was that the drug problem was a relatively small part of who she was. That the talent she had and the music she made should count a lot more than her drug problems. I think they viewed her as a part of the neighborhood and a part of that church.”
Of all Whitney Houston’s hit songs, Pane said her favorite has always been “I Will Always Love You.” If life for Whitney Houston didn’t treat her kindly, bringing her the joy and happiness wished for in the song, the hometown people who knew her never stopped hoping that it would.
“I don’t want to dwell on the negative things,” Pane said. When the class of ‘81 meets for a reunion this April, they plan to have an honorary service — possibly a mass or prayer service — for their late classmate.
“She was the closest I’ll ever get to a star, and what a great star to be attached to. It was just a proud feeling to know that we attended the same high school,” Pane added. “Let’s remember the great legend and the great voice.”