Local doctor was classmate of Whitney Houston

Dr. Maria Pane of Lutherville with her yearbook from Mount Saint Dominic Academy. Houston's photo appears on the left page, bottom right.
Dr. Maria Pane of Lutherville with her yearbook from Mount Saint Dominic Academy. Houston's photo appears on the left page, bottom right. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

It wasn't scandalous by tabloid standards, but it was a rebellious act for the young women at the Mount Saint Dominic Academy, a small all-girls Catholic high school in New Jersey. Whitney Houston, class of 1981, sometimes wore mismatched socks and rolled up her sleeves.

The mischievous gospel singer would then push the maroon-colored dress code just a bit further. She would "roll up her little skirt, just a little bit above the knees, and wouldn't care if she got a detention," said Dr. Maria Pane, who lives in Lutherville and sat next to Houston in high school home room.

A day after the 48-year-old Houston's unexpected death on Saturday in Beverly Hills, Calif., left the music world in mourning, Pane fondly recalled her old school days in Caldwell, N.J., and the unpretentious Houston, whom she described as an "ordinary high school girl, just like all of us."

In her valedictorian's address 31 years ago, Pane noted that most of the 79 seniors graduating had been born the year the Barbie doll became a sensation, and the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

"If I could give that speech again today, I would say that it also was the year a legend was born," said Pane, who treats premature infants at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson. "Whitney Houston was a true legend, someone I'm truly proud to call a friend of mine."

Pane and Houston grew up in adjoining towns north of Newark — the future doctor in Montclair, the future singer in East Orange. They lived close enough that they waited for the No. 28 bus at the same stop, on Bloomfield Avenue, the main route through both towns.

They played and studied in different cliques and social circles, Pane said, but the school was small enough that everybody knew everybody else. Pane and Houston sat next to each other in home room, No. 201, and were in the same physical education, art and French classes.

Houston's Grammy-award winning mother, Cissy Houston, was a top gospel singer and backed up such varied stars as Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison. Singer Dionne Warwick was one of Houston's cousins. Pane said she didn't know those star tidbits about her classmate until late in freshman year.

"I had no idea who Whitney Houston was," the doctor said. "I have to say that Whitney was unpretentious. She was very kind, she was loving."

Pane showed off pictures in the yearbook, called Lumen, depicting Houston with a smile on her face, and usually in a group shot. The yearbooks contained no signatures or personal notes. Houston modeled for the magazine Seventeen and sang in a gospel choir.

"It was every girl's dream to be like her," said Pane, who went on to earn her medical degree, do a fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University and work at Duke University Medical Center before coming to GBMC a decade ago.

Pane, speaking to reporters in the waiting room outside the hospital delivery room, recalled that once in gym, Houston was performing a dance routine in front of the class.

"She went around and twirled, and I happened to be right in the way and got it right in the jaw," the doctor said. "I still feel it to this day."

It is one of the happier memories that Pane has of her friend. She said she hadn't seen Houston since graduation, though she and classmates went to New York in the early 1990s to see her in concert. They tried to get backstage, but it didn't work out.

Pane's voice cracked as she talked about reading about the more troubling aspects of Houston's life — her admission to succumbing to drug addiction and other problems.

"I hope that she will be remembered for the fabulous voice that she had," Pane said. "She was just an incredible singer, a true legend. She touched so many lives and hearts by the music she created. She was beautiful.

"I've heard various stories about a troubled life," the doctor continued. "I'd like to not know too much about that, but I can't help but think that could have affected her in so many ways."

Pane said that Houston did not attend the high school class' 10th and 25th reunions, though she said friends on Facebook are already planning a tribute to her when the 35th reunion comes around.

The classmates have been sharing stories and laughing at the teenager who challenged the nuns with subtle wardrobe changes. Pane said the class had hoped that Houston would show up at a reunion and sing.

"I know that won't happen here on Earth," the doctor said. "But maybe some day in heaven we will have the opportunity to hear her beautiful voice sing again. I believe that Whitney Houston is looking down on all of us, especially her friends at Mount Saint Dominic Class of '81, and singing joyfully now with the angels."


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