Popular photographer had a smile for everyone
BY MICHAEL BAZELEY
It was a classic Luci Houston moment.
Photographer Houston and a reporter were interviewing a woman at a battered-women's shelter for a story two years ago. Normally, women at the shelter don't like to be photographed, let alone have their picture in the paper.
But Houston had a way of putting people at ease.
"It became a joint interview," recalled reporter Mike Antonucci. And before long, the woman agreed to have her portrait taken. "You could just see the courage passing from Luci to the woman."
Houston's connection with people during interviews is perhaps her most poignant legacy. Houston, 43, was found dead Sunday near her Oakland home, the apparent victim of a homicide.
In her eight years at the Mercury News, and her four decades on Earth, Lucille Shirley Houston did a lot of caring. When friends and colleagues think of her, they recall her ready smile and fondness for long, tight hugs.
To Houston, friends and colleagues were known as "sista," "brotha-man" and "darling."
It's a cliché, friends said, but she really could light up a room with her presence.
"You could be caught up in the busiest part of the day and then you'd catch her smile from across the room, and it didn't matter what was going on, you'd have to smile," said Mercury News reporter Sam Diaz. "She had a way of making everyone feel like they were part of the family."
Houston employed her wit and charm to instantly relax her subjects. Often without realizing it, they would be sucked in by her warmth.
Mercury News reporter Julie Sevrens Lyons warned Houston once that a person they were about to meet was "less than friendly."
"Don't worry, darling, we'll get along just fine," Houston promised. And sure enough, Houston had the woman sharing stories about her children, her career and her aspirations.
"These people who had this whole uneasy feeling of working with reporters, she would make them feel at ease," Diaz said. "She had a way of taking away the discomfort of being in the spotlight."
Mercury News director of photography Geri Migielicz watched Houston mature in her work during her years in San Jose. In time, Migielicz said, Houston gave her work a purpose, which was to "build community."
Her award-winning "From This Day Forward" project exemplified that approach. Every Saturday for two years, Houston photographed a local wedding and published the pictures in the Mercury News. The photos are intimate, poignant, romantic and often funny. But more important, colleagues said, they captured a universal moment.
"She was taken with the romance of weddings, and she saw them as a common denominator across cultures," said Mercury News Executive Editor David Yarnold. "That's what she wanted to capture, the commonality of it."
Later, she went to India to document the predatory culture faced by high-tech workers applying for H-1B visas. During her travels there, she was struck by the spirituality of the people, said Akili Ramsess, a Mercury News picture editor.
"It reignited her passion for her work, and it deepened her own spirituality," Ramsess said.
When Houston returned, she told colleagues that she was determined to make a difference.
She began training and raising funds for a marathon to benefit leukemia victims. And in an application for a journalism fellowship, she proposed sharing her photographic expertise with East Palo Alto schoolchildren so they could document the changing face of their community.
Houston was born Lucille Shirley Williams on March 10, 1958, in Washington, D.C., one of six children in a solidly working-class family.
Her spirit and outgoing personality made her popular at school, and she upstaged even her older sister.
"She just made her presence known," said her sister, Joyce Williams, 44. "Even though I was older, people thought she was the oldest. She was the animated one."
She was adventurous and inquisitive. To the chagrin of her parents, when Houston was a teenager, she and her friends sneaked off to an amusement park -- in New Jersey.
A food-lover, she declared as a child that she wanted to be a baker. But photography found her instead.
Houston once recalled how her grandmother brought home a National Geographic magazine with its "incredibly beautiful photographs of different people and places." Still a schoolgirl, she was captivated.
Later, in a high school journalism class, she asked how a camera worked. It was a turning point in her life, she said.
Houston nurtured her interest in photography at a magnet high school in Washington, D.C. Teacher Llewellyn Berry said she had a "natural eye."
"She loved working the lab," said Berry, 55. "And she had the drive. Everything she did, she had a drive."
Houston graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1980 with a degree in journalism. She freelanced for several years. But her dream of being a full-time photojournalist eluded her until 1986, when she was hired by the Kansas City Star.
"The thing that ties all the stories together is her ability to make people laugh," said Jean Shifrin, 44, an Atlanta Journal Constitution photographer who worked with Houston in Kansas City. "We laughed all the time."
Later, Houston worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer before settling at the Mercury News in 1993.
At every step along the way, Houston picked up lifelong friends -- seemingly the only kind she knew.
Teresa Gaines worked with Houston in Kansas City. The two became so close that when Gaines was moving to the East Bay a few years ago, she let Houston pick her apartment. Gaines said that story illustrates Houston's trustworthiness, demonstrated through dozens of small acts of kindness.
"I knew she was going to be thorough, and that it would be a place that she would live in," said Gaines, 38, a public relations specialist in New Jersey. "I trusted her."
On Jan. 2, 1998, Houston married Raymond Houston, whom she had met two years earlier while waiting for a blind date to show up. Luci Houston petitioned for divorce in June, citing irreconcilable differences.
Houston loved music (Stevie Wonder was a favorite), dancing, gardening and laughing.
She was a straight-shooter who spoke her mind about everything from office politics to a colleague's wardrobe or haircut. Often, she spoke up if she witnessed an injustice. Almost always, her bluntness was inspired by compassion.
Once, she scolded a 13-year-old boy -- who was home alone at the time -- for opening his apartment door to a Mercury News reporter and letting him in.
Houston's kindness will touch at least one more family. Houston had urged her own family last year to forgo holiday gift-giving and to give gifts instead to a needy family.
For a variety of reasons, it didn't happen last year. But this year, her family has vowed that it will.
Lucille Shirley Houston
Born: March 10, 1958, Washington, D.C.
Died: November 2001
Survived by: Parents, Clarence and Catherine Williams, brothers, Clarence Williams and Antonio Williams, and sisters, Joyce Williams and Karen Pierce, all of the Washington, D.C., area; brother, Sean Williams of Oklahoma City, Okla.; and husband, Raymond Houston of Oakland.
Services: To be determined.
Memorial donations are appreciated to the Luci S. Houston Scholarship Fund to benefit young Afro-American
students interested in photojournalism. If you are interested in making a tax-deductible contribution, please send your donation to:
Luci S. Houston Scholarship Fund
c/o Pam Larussa
San Jose Mecury News
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