Kenny Macklin won't remember Whitney Houston like the rest of the world will, for her music videos, Grammy performances or movies.
He won't recall what the pop superstar said during TV interviews or how her name has been in the headlines since news of her death broke.
Macklin, a Penn State Altoona faculty member, won't remember Houston as "Whitney" at all. He'll remember her as "Nippy" - the singer's nickname used by family and close friends.
"That's how people knew her," Macklin, 63, said just minutes after getting a call asking him to be a pall bearer at Saturday's funeral for the girl he watched grow up in their hometown of East Orange, N.J. "I never called her Whitney, except when I was trying to explain who she was."
When Macklin remembers "Nippy," he'll think of the day he was in high school and she was brought home from the hospital. He'll recall the wedding they attended when she was 8 years old but already the life of the party.
He'll laugh about how he used to tease her for not being able to dance.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Penn State Altoona faculty member Kenny Macklin, who grew up in the same town as Whitney Houston, became close friends with the late star and will be a pall bearer at her funeral.
"Our little ongoing joke was you sing, I'll dance and we'll go make millions. But obviously she learned how to dance a little and left me behind," Macklin said, stifling a chuckle. "It was [nice] for me to witness her growth and development in her career. I saw her go from the girl sitting on the couch and playing in the pool to a mega star.
"It was nice to say, 'I know her.'"
Macklin, who has lived in Altoona for 20 years, knew Houston's whole family. He was a member of the New Hope Baptist Church, which he said was "a very popular place to be on Saturday morning," and a teammate of Houston's cousin Kenny Moss on high school sports teams. He watched Houston's success as well as that of her gospel-singing mother, Cissy, and cousins Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick.
He said it didn't take too many performances with the church choir for many to realize, "Whoa, this girl, she has got it," he said. "Church people talk about bringing joyful noise to the Lord. She was that."
Macklin said he saw Houston less frequently after he moved to Altoona to coach Penn State Altoona's basketball team.
"Nippy always said, 'All you know how to do is bounce a basketball, Kenny,'" he said.
One of the last times he saw her perform was in July 1999 at University Park's Bryce Jordan Center. He had a front-row ticket and said when Houston saw him, she stopped her performance and hollered to him from the stage.
Houston's brother Gary Garland called with the news on Saturday, but Macklin said it wasn't until Monday when he saw Houston being discussed on TV that her death started hitting him.
"I was like, 'Hold it. I know these people. They're talking about someone I know. They're talking about Nippy here. She's gone,'" he said.
Macklin said it is not his place to speculate as to the nature of Houston's death, but instead his main concern is to protect Houston's family and address their grief.
"With any celebrity, there will be swirls of accusations. There will be swarms of misinformed people sharing misinformation," he said. "Let's put her in the ground first."
Jerry Zolten, an assistant professor of communication, arts and sciences and American studies at Penn State Altoona as well as a writer, performer and producer of American roots music, said the tragic nature of Houston's death may temporarily boost record sales, but it shouldn't taint her legacy.
"Hers is a name and a sound that will be around for a long time, as long as people seek out music that moves them in some way," he said.
What made Houston such a celebrated singer was not only her talent, Zolten said, but the way she evoked emotion in every song, from her famed "I Will Always Love You" to her rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."
"She had this amazing combination of grace and beauty, and a voice that could do anything and make it feel like it was from the heart," he said. "You see these young singers doing vocal acrobatics, and they're trying to emulate what Whitney Houston could do effortlessly."
Zolten addressed Houston's contribution to popular music in his History of Rock and Roll class this week, folding it in to a discussion of the history of gospel music and its influence on modern rock, R&B and hip hop.
"[Houston] did represent the best there could be in the genre of rhythm and blues, soul and popular music," he said. "She represented the best of the genre. She was the pinnacle."
Fame isn't what Macklin will associate with his fond memories of "Nippy," though.
"I don't look at her as the star," Macklin said. "She wasn't the star, she was just my girl. She was just a delightful person to be around. She could steal a room. ... I guess that's what you can do with a mic in your hand.
"She'll be missed. I'm going to miss her."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.