After four decades: 'Thank you, Miss Ross'


Since 1968, she has been teaching young girls to be ladies

August 28, 2008|By janene holzberg

With her wide-set brown eyes and high cheekbones, Pinnie L. Ross still has what it takes to be a model - more than a half-century after the heyday of her career.

Ross carries her slender frame with the same elegant bearing she once did in fashion shows, and she remains aware of her posture. It is not hard to imagine her receiving young girls into her Columbia home for another session of Pinnie's Charm Studio.

On Sunday, "Miss Ross" will get a chance to relive her glory days of runways and sashes, and poise and social graces. About 125 former pupils and family members will gather at the Sheraton Columbia Hotel at 1 p.m. to honor the woman who taught them to be ladies over the past 40 years.

But those who know Ross best say the lessons went way beyond which fork to use at dinner and how to apply makeup.

"Miss Ross helped all of us to find our inner beauty so we could take on the world," said Donna Hill-Staton of Clarksville, who was the county's first black judge and a former Maryland deputy attorney general.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the tools she gave us as we stepped on that runway and felt confident and beautiful are what helped us to succeed later in life," said Hill-Staton, who took lessons with her sister, Dr. Terri Lynn Hill of Columbia.

It was in 1968, the year of anti-Vietnam war protests and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, that the school was launched.

Amid the backdrop of the burgeoning civil rights movement, Pinnie (pronounced piney ) and her husband, William A. Ross Sr., became the 501st family to move to Columbia.

Drawn by the promise of founder James W. Rouse to create a place where people of all races and incomes would live as neighbors, the couple settled into a split-level in Bryant Woods, where they still live. They raised their son and two daughters there.

Pinnie Ross, who had studied at the Barbizon School of Modeling, began volunteering for the Columbia Association's welcoming committee. During visits to the homes of families new to the area, she came across many young girls "who were in need of lessons in the art of becoming a lady," she said.

"When the mothers learned I had been a model, many of them would ask me to teach their daughters etiquette and proper behavior," recalled Ross, who said most of her students were African-American.

As her clientele grew, Ross also became involved with Hal Jackson's Talented Teens International competition and was named state pageant director for the franchise, which held its 38th competition in July in the British Virgin Islands.

"Some of my girls were something else," she exclaimed. "But, oh, how I loved them all!"

Ross' pupils, who numbered 600 over the years, continue to return that love.

"I feel even now like her adopted daughter," said Dr. Edna Hill-Sallah, who won the title of Miss Black Teenage America in 1973. The Columbia resident is an emergency room physician at Harbor Hospital Center in Baltimore, where she strives to encourage the young trauma patients she treats to head in a positive direction.

"Miss Ross was all about seeing a higher potential in each of us and then bringing that potential out," said Hill-Sallah, who has remained close to the Rosses.

Other charm school and talent competition alumni went on to become film and TV personalities, including Suzanne Malveaux, White House correspondent for CNN, and Jada Pinkett-Smith, movie actress and wife of actor Will Smith. Neither is expected at the celebration Aug. 31, the Rosses said.

"Jada was as cocky and confident as they come," William Ross said, displaying a photo he took of her at a competition in 1988 when she was about 17. Pinkett-Smith was among the pupils who enrolled when Pinnie Ross opened her classes to Baltimore residents.

Ross had so many students some years that she moved her sessions from the basement of her home to Slayton House in Wilde Lake, she said. Lessons lasted eight weeks, with the girls divided into age groups 6 to 10 and 11 to 18.

Ross' method of instruction frequently included taking five girls at a time to a restaurant to practice what they had learned about table manners and the art of conversation.

"The waiters were always complimentary and so impressed with how the girls conducted themselves," she said.

There were also lessons in how to stand, sit and walk, which included the classic exercise of having the girls balance a heavy textbook on their heads as they walked across a room.

Regular sessions of Pinnie's Charm Studio ended in 2004. In 2005, Ross held a session at River Hill High School at the invitation of The Links, a black women's service organization. A year later, she taught an after-school class at Oakland Mills Middle School, which turned out to be her last group.

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