Outside the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, the flag flew at half-staff in the icy wind as Principal Henry W. Hamilton remembered the gangly 15-year-old who lived up the road, and who excitedly showed off her modeling portfolio one afternoon in 1978.
Back then, before the red brick school had been renamed for the future pop queen, Hamilton didn’t expect Whitney Houston to become a star.
Houston died Saturday in Beverly Hills of undetermined causes.
“She was in the choir and the chorus. She used to sing at church. But I didn’t expect she’d become a great singer –- the greatest singer in the world,” said Hamilton, who acknowledges he missed the explosive talent that developed in the young girl as she made her way through the halls of this school in suburban New Jersey, where her first classroom, No. 6, is just to the right of the main entrance.
Hamilton isn’t usually at school on Sunday. But after his phone began ringing on Saturday evening with news of Houston’s death, he knew this would not be a normal day for anyone who knew Houston as a child, or who had seen her sing at the New Hope Baptist Church in neighboring Newark.
“Her start was a beautiful, innocent thing,” said Hassan Munford, who 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 said with a smile as he left flowers outside the school.
“You always have your controversies,” he said of Houston’s well-publicized struggle with drugs and her turbulent relationship with ex-husband Bobby Brown. “But at the end of the day, the influence she had on the community –- on the kids and aspiring musicians and singers –- far outweighs the controversy.”
Throughout the day, fans came bearing flowers, candles and heart-shaped balloons to the school and the church, which shares a nondescript street with an auto shop and a tavern and which, on this frigid February morning, was the only building with any hint of life or color.
Parishioners and fans, bundled up in fur coats, down jackets or flimsy sweaters too thin to block the cold, began arriving at the church before dawn for a morning memorial and kept coming throughout the day for additional services.
“Our hearts are very heavy today,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson as he headed into the church to address the third and last service of the day. “The suddenness of it all … we’re just traumatized.”
Every seat was filled inside the 112-year-old church, where Houston sang as a teenager and where her mother, Cissy Houston, and cousin Dionne Warwick also were regulars in the choir.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Houston “a true New Jersey treasure.”
Hamilton has been principal of the Whitney E. Houston school for 40 years, since the days when it was called the Franklin School. It was renamed for Houston in 1997.
His office is decorated with pictures that include photographs of him and Houston over the decades.
When his phone rang Saturday night and a nephew told him Houston had died, Hamilton initially did not believe it. But it’s never easy to accept when one of your pupils dies, he said.
“It’s hurtful. Sometimes we say, ‘Is there something we could have done to save that youngster?’ ” said Hamilton, admitting that there is only so much the school can do once pupils move on.
"Once she left here, we felt she was on the right path,” he said. “The things that happened later ... that’s show biz. Unfortunately, some survive and some don’t.”
--Tina Susman in East Orange, N.J.
Photo: At New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., where Whitney Houston began her career as a child, a memorial to the singer grew. She died Saturday in Beverly Hills. Credit: John W. Ferguson / Getty Images