Classical harpist and former schoolteacher Patricia Terry-Ross has been named the Kresge Foundation’s 2017 Eminent Artist.
Terry-Ross taught music at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School for 31 years, and still plays with the Eason Trio and the Michigan Opera Theatre orchestra. She will be the foundation’s ninth Eminent Artist, joining a distinguished roster that includes artist Charles McGee and poet Bill Harris.
The honor comes with $50,000, no strings attached. Terry-Ross, 70, said she was flabbergasted when she got the call.
“It’s just amazing,” she said, reached at her Highland Park home. “I’ve gone from being stupefied to being amazed. I would never have thought I would be selected for this kind of honor.”
Terry-Ross knows some of the previous winners, including Harris. “I’m looking at the other people who got the award,” she said, “and thinking — me? I teach school.”
Kresge cited Terry-Ross’ “unique legacy” of performance and music education, and a passionate dedication to Detroit’s cultural community.
“Not only is Patricia an incredible harpist,” said David DiChiera, MOT founder and artistic director, “but she’s one of the loveliest women I know. It’s very hard not to like her. She’s just a beautiful human being.”
In 1976, Terry-Ross left a position at Pattengill Elementary to take over Cass Tech’s famous harp program, which celebrated its 90th anniversary last year. She was invited in 1988 to audition for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, where she’d played numerous times, but couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“It was an ‘Aha’ moment,” she said, when she realized she couldn’t abandon her students and the program she’d worked so hard to nurture.
“My maternal grandmother informed me when I was little, ‘You did not get this gift for yourself. It’s not a gift unless you give it away,’ ” Terry-Ross said. “So I’ve always looked on teaching as my way of giving it away.”
Her mother, Elizabeth Terry, said it was always clear that music had a special grip on her little girl, even when very tiny.
Listening to the radio, Terry said, “I’d dance and snap my fingers all around her crib. And Pat would just kick her feet and shake her little hands.”
Terry and her husband started the child on piano lessons at age 5 and enrolled her in the Detroit Conservatory of Music the following year.
She discovered the harp as a student at Cass Tech, and she went on to do both her undergraduate and graduate musical studies at the University of Michigan.
One of the hundreds of Cass Tech students Terry-Ross inspired over the years was Sally Ann McCune, who now teaches composition at Ithaca College in New York.
“I really can’t think of a better person for this honor,” McCune said Wednesday. “Pat’s just a really wonderful, musical person, and has super-high standards. Plus, she has a huge heart.”