New Jersey Native Whitney Houston Remembered Across the State
Singer praised for her soaring voice and her role as a model for black women, despite her later problems with drug abuse.
Singing superstar Whitney Houston—a New Jersey native born in Newark, educated in Caldwell, and a one-time resident of East Orange and Mendham Township—was mourned Sunday across the state in ceremonies both large and small.
At the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where Houston began her public singing career at age 11 as a member of the junior gospel choir, a medley of Houston's hit songs played over the public address system as the congregation arrived for a 6:30 a.m. service dedicated to the singer.
Several in the crowd said they were also there to pay their respects to Houston's mother, gospel singer Cissy, a long-time active member of the church.
Far to the west of Newark in Mendham Township, mourners placed flowers outside the entrance to Houston's home, where she lived for two decades with members of her family.
Many local residents remembered casual encounters with the music superstar.
Shopping at a Whole Foods store in West Orange, East Orange resident Sharonda Allen talked of the time her choir sang for the video of Houston's song, "All the Man That I Need."
“I felt as if a relative had passed,” Allen said, about her reaction to Houston's death. “Her music has been so much of the soundtrack of my life... She was my role model, my idol, my hero.”
She called Houston “the real American Idol,” particularly for the influence she had on young black girls of her generation. “We looked at ourselves in the mirror and we saw that we were beautiful.”
In Mendham, members of the local police department recalled her wedding to fellow singer Bobby Brown.
"We lit up the end of her drive way for guests being dropped off and picked up by limo," Bruce Schmeal said in a comment on Patch. "I remember (actor and comedian) Kenan Ivory Wayans was really cool, he took pictures with us and was just real nice."
Melissa Phelan said in a comment that her father had been a member of the township committee that had issued permits for the extravagant wedding. "Whitney and Bobby were very kind to include them on their guest list," she said. "My parents went to the wedding along with other members of the BFD and Police Department... It truly is such a sad day! Another pop icon of my time is gone, RIP Whitney!"
Some members of New Hope Baptist Church had a more personal connection with the singer.
"I heard her sing in this church, many times. It was awesome," said longtime parishioner Karen Winfield of West Orange, who referred to the singer's "impetuous smile."
Parishioner Daneen Grayson said Houston's battle against drug abuse "were her struggles, that was between her and God," a sentiment heard often this morning by worshipers filing past a gaggle of reporters into the church.
"We ask for everyone to continue to lift up the Houston family with your prayers," Pastor Joseph Carter told reporters outside the church Sunday morning. "The family shared Whitney with the world but Whitney was a mother, daughter, sister, and that is the focus we want to maintain."
Carter also said he had "no word" on funeral arrangements.
Mourners left flowers in the metal railing of the fence outside the chrurch. A large crowd of reporters and TV crews were kept at a distance from the entrance. Reporters were not allowed inside for the service.
She was exposed to some of the top soul and rhythm and blues singers from an early age—her cousins were Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and Aretha Franklin was her godmother.
Her family moved to East Orange after the Newark riots in 1967, and she attended Mount Saint Dominic Academy in Caldwell for high school.
Houston later bought a home in Mendham Township, and during that period the pop icon spent her down time like many residents would. She shopped in nearby Chester and had local doctors help her through her pregnancy.
Melinda Bass worked at the Dairy Queen in Chester after classes let out at Mendham High School and during summer break when she was home from Ithaca College. While not much of that time by the soft serve may be memorable, working on a cake for Whitney Houston and her family was something few would forget.
“She used to come in all the time,” Bass said. “Usually when I wasn’t there. I met her daughter and decorated a cake for Bobby Brown’s father.”
Her co-workers at the ice cream shop all regarded Houston well. “Everyone agreed she was so nice and so humble,” Bass said. “This is so sad.”
Livingston native Martha Ackermann saw Houston through a different lens, the one of expectant mother. “When I was pregnant with my daughter Jill my doctor was her back up doctor at St. Barnabas,” Ackermann said. “Everyone said she was so nice and she was just like any other mother.”
Houston put her Mendham residence up for sale in 2009, according to NJ.com. She later lived in Atlanta with husband Bobby Brown, and most recently had a home in Los Angeles.
This story was reported by local editors Paul Milo in Newark, Russ Crespolini in Mendham and Teresa Akersten in Caldwell, and written by Senior Regional Editor Steve Johnson.