IN THE LATE '50s, WHEN TEENAGER DIANA Ross was still an aspiring star, her family's Detroit apartment rang with the sound of Motown's future top voices. Little Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson all made guest appearances at the kitchen table on their way to R & B fame. But Diana's sister Barbara showed little interest. "Books were my passion," she says. "My family leased me because I always had a book in my hand." So while Diana went on to fame with the Supremes, Barbara pursued a different path. And this fall she hit a high note of her own when she became the first African-American woman to head a U.S. medical school, Ohio University's College of Osteopathic Medicine.

In her new book, Secrets of a Sparrow, Diana calls Barbara Ross-Lee, 51, "the true beauty of the family" and says, "I wanted my parents to like me as much as they liked her." But over the years—and particularly since their mother's death in 1984—their relationship has become closer. "The bond we have now is so strong," says Diana, 49, "we have become my mother—together." Adds Barbara: "We often call each other to bare our souls. Sometimes I call her to vent about issues she knows absolutely nothing about, but it's a safe environment to do that. And she does it as well."

Barbara was the oldest of six children born to Fred Ross, a union steward, and his wife, Ernestine, a homemaker. (Barbara was followed by Diana, Marguerita, now 46, Fred Jr., 45, Arthur, 44, and Wilbert, 37.) The first in her family to attend college, Barbara married James Lee, a teacher, when she was a biology and chemistry major at Wayne State University, and after graduation look a job as a hospital biochemist. Following the births of son Stephen, now 26, and daughter Monica, 24, she switched to leaching junior high, while earning a master's degree in education. But she found the school's curriculum uninspiring. "All I was teaching were clouds and physical sciences,'' she says. Diana encouraged her to apply to med school. "It didn't lake much nudging," says Diana. "It had been her dream since she was a little girl."

In 1970, Barbara began a grueling three-year campaign to earn her doctor of osteopathy—a medical field that emphasizes holistic, preventive and primary care, and the musculoskeletal system—at Michigan Stale. After a day at school, she would spend a few hours with the kids (she divorced Lee in 1971), then hit the sack until 2:30, when she would get up to study. "I slept on the floor because if I got too comfortable, I wouldn't wake up," she says.

After graduation, Ross-Lee went into private practice in Detroit and discovered—to her dismay—that some patients sought her out because of her famous sibling. "I would never go lo a doctor because she was Bar-bra Streisand's sister," she says.

Soon she longed to be back in a classroom. So when Michigan State offered her a full-time job in 1983 teaching family medicine, she jumped at it. The only problem was that the university is in East Lansing and her second husband, Edmond Beverly, was a school administrator near Detroit, 78 miles away. The family—which, in addition to Stephen and Monica, now included Beverly's two sons (Steve, now 26, and Kevin, 21) from a previous marriage, and Alaina, 17, Ross-Lee's daughter with Beverly—wound up splitting its time between suburban Detroil and East Lansing. Ross-Lee's latest move, lo the Ohio U. campus in Athens, further complicates matlers, but she and Beverly are determined to work it out. "We made a pad early on that each of us would be flexible, based on the direction our careers took," says Barbara, who is currently purchasing a two-bedroom condo near campus. "We didn't realize then how flexible," adds Ed.

Despite the complications, the kids are proud of Ross-Lee's success. "People always say, 'Oh, she's Diana Ross's sister,' " says Monica. "But she's done things that have nothing to do with her sister. In many ways, she's done much, much more."

CYNTHIA SANZ
JULIE GREENWALT in Athens

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Greenwalt.