When she thinks of Whitney Houston, Dr. Maria Pane doesn't just remember the legendary singer and actress.
She remembers the bright, talented and playfully rebellious teen who once sat next to her at homeroom at Mount Saint Dominic Academy, the ordinary high school student who "always looked like she was having fun."
"Whitney Houston was a true legend, someone I'm truly proud to call a friend of mine and I'm deeply saddened by her death," said Pane, a Lutherville resident and neonatologist at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Houston and Pane were among 79 girls in the Caldwell, NJ school's class of 1981 and had several classes together, including physical education, homeroom and art.
Houston died Saturday in Los Angeles at age 48.
Many of Pane's classmates went on to big things—she went into medicine, many of her former classmates are doctors, lawyers, business owners. But few seemed as destined for greatness as Houston. The child of an entertainment executive and a gospel singer, Houston was already modeling for Seventeen magazine in high school, and in 1981 became its first black cover girl.
"It was every girl's dream in our high school to be someone like Whitney Houston," said Pane. "That's how we knew her. She was beautiful. She had poise. She was dedicated to her modeling career. When we learned she had started to sing, we were shocked. But it was no doubt because she was a beautiful gospel singer in high school."
Houston was always looking to push the envelope, even in Catholic school, where she played with the rules of the school uniform.
"We had to wear maroon socks, a maroon blazer and a plaid and maroon skirt. Whitney Houston loved to challenge the school rules by wearing different-colored socks," said Pane. The singer would "roll up her sleeves, and sometimes roll up her skirt just a little bit above the knees and wouldn't think she'd get into detention."
One time, Houston was practicing a dance routine in gym class, twirled and accidentally struck Pane in the jaw. Pane said she can practically feel it when she thinks about it.
Pane never spoke to Houston after graduation, but never forgot her, and she and some fellow former classmates even attended one of her shows in New York City in the early 1990s.
"I tried to catch her backstage, but we didn't luck out with that," she said.
Pane said she'd "like not to know too much" about Houston's much-publicized personal troubles, including addiction and a turbulent marriage to singer Bobby Brown, but "I can't help but think that that affected her in so many ways. I'd liken her as a legend to Michael Jackson. She's just amazing. She's won so many awards, and for her to pass on the eve of the Grammys is really sad."
Since learning of her passing Saturday, Pane and her classmates have been sharing stories and photos on Facebook and considering ways to honor her at their upcoming 35-year reunion. Their favorite film—The Bodyguard—and her music will probably be part of the festivities. Pane thinks people should remember her not for her struggles, but for her legendary talents.
"I hope everyone remembers her for that. I will always remember her for how kind she was to me, how wonderful she was to all the students in the class and how beautiful her voice is," said Pane. "What a living legend she was."