This week marked the passing of some amazing musical and theatrical talent with the loss of David Bowie and Alan Rickman. But for me, as hard as it is to know there will be no new content and insight from either artist, their departure pales in comparison to the loss of my amazing cousin, Pete Huttlinger. You can read about his journey in the book he and his wife, Erin, wrote titled Joined at the Heart: A Story of Love, Guitars, Resilience and Marigolds. His and Erin’s story is amazing, beautiful, and heartbreaking but it is their story so get the book if you are interested. Here I wanted to take the time to share my perspective on this wonderful man.
I come from a very large family and at reunions it was easy to spend hours together and still not talk with everyone. As cousins we tended to break off into subgroups according to our age. My group consisted of a handful of grammar school aged kids but I didn’t branch out with the older ones until later in life. The pre-teen and teenage kids gathered together and talked out of range of the adults and the little ones, like me, kept to our toys and always in earshot of our parents. Everyone was kind and fun but I understood, being the youngest of six, to give space to my teenage siblings. One reunion stands out to me. The older cousins were talking about cousin Pete and how talented he was on the banjo. This caught my attention because I didn’t know many people who could play an instrument. One of my sisters played the flute for a time and I loved listening to her practice. But she gave it up so when I heard a real relative could play I was very excited. Pete arrived, and just like I had imagined, he was cool, funny, and carried his banjo on his shoulder. It was part of him. He had no problem swinging it around and playing a tune off the top of his head. To me, he was amazing.
Fast forward to later in my life, several weddings, several funerals, several reunions, and I found myself traveling to Nashville, Tennessee to build a house for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Pete had moved there several years prior. I had tempered my hero worship of cousin Pete to a normal response and had seen him in concert with John Denver and at family functions. I contacted him and asked if he would like to come see the process of our show. He arrived, per usual, with an instrument on his shoulder. On the show I worked with very creative people who renovated homes, signed autographs for adoring fans, and hammed it up for the camera every day. Paul Dimeo and Preston Sharp were two of the funniest of our on camera designers. They loved to play instruments and sing on their breaks. I do not play an instrument but I can listen to someone else for hours so it was an absolute joy to introduce a blood relative who could speak the language of music to my TV friends. When I introduced them to Pete, he shook their hands and proceeded to have a conversation while playing various songs with expert precision. Needless to say, when Preston’s jaw dropped a bit, I chuckled and said, “Just for the record, Pete is a Blood relative. I may not play an instrument but we are connected by blood!”
For the Rodriguez family, Ty Pennington had asked me to paint murals on panels for his outdoor space. It was about 98 degrees fahrenheit with 100% humidity so the panels were set up in a garage away from the public. This presented the perfect place for Pete and I to catch up. We were away from the crowds outside and out of earshot of our cameras. Which was good as that would have required us to be silent when they were rolling. Pete sat in a chair playing song after song while I painted murals. Being seasoned creative people, we were both able to do our thing and carry on a conversation. It was one of the most profound moments in my life. Connecting with a family member on two levels simultaneously. Emotionally and creatively. I will always cherish that day and my beautiful cousin, Pete Huttlinger. Heaven is so much richer today.