Courtesy of Hank Kula
Gertrude Houston, at her 2008 webcast at the Rochester LPGA tournament. County News file photo by Hank Kula
Family, friends remember Gertrude Houston
Gertrude M. Houston, of Geneseo, an eight-time Emmy Award winning television producer, died June 1 at Roswell Park Cancer Center, Buffalo. She was 54.
Ms. Houston, the eldest daughter of the late Honorable J. Robert Houston and the late Judith (Chandler) Houston, was recently inducted into the Geneseo High School Hall of Fame. The honor, she said at the time, meant more to her than any of her television accolades, because she followed in the footsteps of her father on the wall of honor at Geneseo High School.
“Gert always has been a part of my life, and losing her is deeply personal and profoundly sad for me,” said Catharine Orman Young, who grew up on an Avon dairy farm seven miles away from the Houston home in Geneseo, and now represents part of Livingston County in the New York State Senate.
The senator and Ms. Houston were college roommates at SUNY Fredonia. Sen. Young credits Ms. Houston with getting her involved in elected office – running for student government, and winning their race. Ms. Houston graduated in 1980, president of her class and with a degree in drama and communications. “Gert’s creative genius was easy to recognize, even back then. It wasn’t surprising when she became one of the most talented producers and writers around,” Sen. Young said.
Ms. Houston began her television career sweeping floors at the studios of WOKR-Channel 13 in Henrietta. Her custodial work led to camera work and eventually direction and production for the then popular live show “PM Magazine.” In 1983 she landed a job as Senior Producer at “PM Magazine’s” headquarters in Washington D.C. and at WTTG-TV.
After four years Ms. Houston was recruited to produce national entertainment, travel and sports specials for the FOX Network, where she created a nationally-syndicated post-game program, “Redskins After Hours.” The show was lauded by Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser as “an irreverent celebration, just the right balance of what’s naughty and what’s nice about the NFL today.” Ms. Houston would go on to independently direct and produce programming for The Today Show, Good Morning America, NFL Films, ESPN, ABC Sports, CBS Sports and The Smithsonian.
In her time at FOX, Ms. Houston garnered 25 Emmy Award nominations, winning five — three for Outstanding Program Feature, one for Outstanding Sports Program and one for Outstanding Entertainment Program.
Ms. Houston spent a year at station KDKA in Pittsburgh producing national features for Group W until striking out on her own in 1989, returning to Geneseo to start her own company, Houston Productions.
Behind many of her television projects, a passion for making a difference – raising awareness and money, whatever the cause – for clients that included United Way, the Rochester LPGA, the Red Cross, the National Warplane Museum, JP Morgan Chase, the American Heart Association, the Discovery Channel, The Health Network, CBS Sports, PBS, Special Olympics. Her work took her to faraway places, including Madagascar to photograph Lemurs, and Lillihammer, Norway to cover the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Ms. Houston’s peers point to her talent for wringing emotion out of anyone and anything as the secret to her success.
“I have never met anyone so fiercely loyal to her friends, and from the first day I met her she made it clear I was to be one of them,” said 13WHAM’s award-winning reporter Jane Flasch. “Gert was both my cheerleader and a mentor. She taught by example. There is no one who could conduct a better interview because there was no one who understood the human spirit better. She cared about each person enough to find their true story and then had talent to tell it with compassion and passion.”
“I have learned through Gert that everyone has a story worth telling and that there is a responsibility when people trust you enough to bare their soul. This, more than anything, has shaped the reporter I have become. I am eternally grateful for that,” Flasch said.
Ms. Houston took particular pride in returning to Geneseo, holding the philosophy she could orchestrate national productions using Rochester talent and facilities. Her efforts lead to three additional Emmy Awards and two international Iris Awards for Best Documentary for herself and her crews. She would prove her philosophy in 2004 when she shared her eighth Emmy Award with producer David Marshall, and cameramen Bryan Maslin and Mike Braden for the sailing documentary, “Hitching a Ride On the Great Lakes.”
I’ve never known anyone so passionate about her craft,” said Maslin, owner of Maslin Digital in Rochester. “She was an extremely talented storyteller, and thousands of people’s lives were touched through her gift. It’s no wonder she was recognized with the highest honors in her field.”
Ms. Houston was working in New York City on September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked. Instinctively Ms. Houston took her field production team toward the tragedy and provided scene coverage for the national news. At the end of the day, she found herself, like thousands of others, stranded in Manhattan. On foot, she made her way to a car rental agency only to find all the cars were gone. Not one to be defeated, she camped outside the returns gate and eventually convinced a man turning in a rental, on faith alone, to give it to her to return to Geneseo.
One of her proudest accomplishments was some of her final, nationally-produced field work for the show, Lobstermen, which aired on Discovery in 2009. At 52, Ms. Houston braved the icy waters of the Atlantic to field produce and shoot footage of lobster fishermen, for weeks at a time, in one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. She prided herself that at twice the age of her shipmates, she survived the elements, as well as emotional torment and even physical abuse by a member of a ship’s crew.
“Gert traveled the country and the world, making friends wherever she went, but always returned home to her beloved Geneseo. Her personality was larger than life, she had boundless energy and passion, loved to laugh, and saw humor in every situation,” said Sen. Young. “Gert lit up every room she ever walked into.”
Ms. Houston is predeceased by her brother, Seamus Houston. She is survived by brother Emmet Houston (New Orleans, LA), sister Eleanor Houston (Geneseo), sister Kathleen Houston and her husband Soren Thomas (Geneseo) as well as nieces Felicity, Kate, Isabelle and Poppy Thomas, and nephew James Thomas, several close cousins and a lifetime of friends.
Friends may call Wednesday, June 6, 2012 from 3 – 8 p.m. at Sweet Briar , 5126 Geneseo-Mt. Morris Rd. (Rte. 63), Geneseo, NY. A funeral Mass will be held Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 11 a.m. at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 4 Avon Rd., Geneseo. In Lieu of Flowers, Memorials to Geneseo Central School Drama Club, 4050 Avon Rd., Geneseo, NY 14454; or Arc of Livingston-Wyoming, 18 Main St., Mt. Morris, NY 14510.
Hank Kula is a sergeant with the Greece Police Department and former managing editor of the Livingston County News.