Sisters Toni, left, and Pam Gregory cry as they stand in front of the Whitney… (Mel Evans, AP )
Reporting from East Orange, N.J. — 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 to him 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 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 admits 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, sits just to the right of the main entrance.
Photos: Whitney Houston | 1963-2012
Hamilton isn't normally at school on Sunday. But after his phone began ringing 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.
"That voice. You could have heard her and not even turned around, and you'd know it's her," said Donna Thorn, whose eyes filled with tears as she arrived at the church to leave flowers. Thorn's voice quavered as she talked of the drugs that had plagued Houston, and of her hopes that the singer would be remembered for her voice, not her addictions.
It was a sentiment echoed by others in this area, which has been plagued by crime and other problems fueled by the recession. Many saw Houston's success as proof that talent and determination could overcome any obstacles, and they said her success as a singer and actress had inspired youngsters growing up here.
"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 bought 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."
Thorn, a former addict, agreed. "If you were never an addict, you don't know what it's like to struggle and stay clean … to hit rock bottom," she said, adding that the "fast life" of Los Angeles' entertainment scene could not have helped Houston as she fought her demons. "When you've got people on the outside looking in, they don't know the struggle. But for me, my memory is that she came from my hometown, she made it out of Newark, and she was on top of the world."
Throughout the day, fans brought 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 said the Board of Education had ordered schools to lower their flags to half-staff in Houston's memory.
He has been principal of the Whitney E. Houston school for 40 years, since the days when it was the Franklin School. It was renamed for Houston in 1997.
Hamilton's office is decorated with photographs, including ones of him and Houston over the decades. He eagerly showed off the bright yellow classroom where the young Whitney spent her earliest days at the school, which today is covered in colorful cutouts of animals and other child-like adornments.
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, Hamilton said.
Full coverage: Whitney Houston | 1963-2012
"It's hurtful. Sometimes we say, 'Is there something we could have done to save that youngster?' " said Hamilton, acknowledging that there is only so much the school can do once students move on.
"Once she left here, we felt she was on the right path," he said of Houston. "The things that happened later, that's show biz. Unfortunately, some survive and some don't."