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Fort Mill man worked with Whitney Houston on 1987 tour

In 1987, Jeff Sochko of Fort Mill was on the lighting crew for the U.S. leg of Whitney Houston's "Moment of Truth" tour.

His wife at the time, pregnant with their son, would visit throughout the seven months he was on the tour.

"Whitney would get on her knees" in front of his wife, Sochko, 51, said Tuesday, "and on more than one occasion, she would rub her belly and sing to my son."

Later, Sochko said, whenever young Nic would cry, his parents would play Whitney Houston songs - and the child would instantly calm down.

Now 24, Nic had been telling friends just last Friday about his connection to Houston.

Less than 12 hours later, they learned the platinum-selling and Grammy-winning singer had died in her Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel room.

Sochko will always remember Houston - whose hits included "I Will Always Love You" and "The Greatest Love of All" - as a "sweet and beautiful person."

"Most people will remember her by her voice," he said. "For me, it was her smile and the spark in her eyes, her little laugh. She had a killer little laugh."

While some seemed to focus on the negatives in Houston's life after her death, Sochko said, he is not one of them.

"I choose to remember her for the person she was on the inside - a person as beautiful as her voice ever was," he said.

Sochko entered the lighting business after developing his love of photography as a high school student in Minneapolis, Minn.

He had the chance to work as an assistant with a fashion photographer in Minneapolis or be a staff photographer at another fashion studio. At the same time, he had been working with a local band with lighting.

He began work for a lighting company in Chicago and spent months on tour with artists such as the Bangles, Stevie Nicks, Al Jarreau and Prince.

Sochko then began putting together Houston's Moment of Truth tour. His responsibilities included controlling the lighting on the stage, except for the computer lights.

Houston was family-oriented, he said, and spent time getting to know the crew.

"Not all artists would interact with the crew," he said. "I worked on some tours where the bands were really friendly, and others you never even talked to them.

"With Whitney, she was really friendly and real sweet."

At catered dinners, Houston would sit with the crew and interact with everyone. She even played touch football, which led to a new nickname for Sochko.

"There was a point at which she was supposed to run behind me because I was blocking for her" during a game, he said. "Somehow she managed to sneak between me and another guy right before we impacted against each other.

"We knocked Whitney to the ground. She had to be carried off the field. We hurt her knee, so she used to call me 'knee-bender.'"

At Thanksgiving, they all had dinner together, and Houston sang with her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston.

One of Sochko's favorite memories on tour was listening to Houston sing, "The Greatest Love of All."

During a rehearsal of the song, Houston decided she wanted to sit in the lighting and sound booth with some of the crew to see how the stage would look. She continued to sing while in the booth.

"During the song," he said, "it gets to a point where you get those really soft, powerful moments, then she belts out this part."

The song could give him goosebumps, Sochko said, and he expected to see her strain to reach the high notes.

"I turned around to look at her," he said. "She was actually leaning over and looking at what I was doing. She actually kind of smiled and winked."

The U.S. leg of the tour ended in mid-December, and Sochko's son was born in January. He didn't return to the tour for the European and Asian portions and hadn't talked to Houston since.

But he'll always remember her big smile and sparkle.

"She was such a sweet person," he said. "I was lucky and blessed that I met her when I did and worked with her."