In the class 1981, Houston was one of 79 girls at the all-girls Catholic school.
"Her mother wanted her to have a good Christian school upbringing in a safe environment with a good education, and to be like any normal teenage girl growing up," Pane said. "This was a good girl. It was shocking to hear any stories of her after high school. The only way those stories could have come was that she was not surrounded by the right people at the right times."
Pane and her classmates heard only snatches of Houston's amazing voice.
"She would sing ditties during lunch hour and hum a bit," she said. "She had a very sweet, angelic voice."
But Houston was not a member of her school chorus. Instead, she reserved her voice for the gospel choir at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark.
After news of her death spread, the church held a special service starting at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. The following message greeted callers: "Pastor Joe A. Carter and New Hope Baptist Church mourn the loss of our beloved Whitney Houston. Keep her daughter Bobbi Christina and mother Cissy Houston and the entire Houston family and their friends in your thoughts and prayers."
While the church was a big part of her upbringing, Us Weekly's Ian Drew pointed out that Houston "didn't come that far from her church roots."
"Her church was in Newark, in a rough neighborhood," he said. "It's not like Whitney grew up in a golden palace. There was a grittiness to her upbringing even though she was in a show business family."
That family included the Queen of Soul as her godmother. Franklin's reaction to Houston's death: "It's so stunning and unbelievable. I couldn't believe what I was reading coming across the TV screen."
In her teens, Houston sang backup for Chaka Khan, Jermaine Jackson and others, as well as modeled. Around that time, music mogul Clive Davis first heard Houston perform.
"The time that I first saw her singing in her mother's act in a club ... it was such a stunning impact," Davis told "Good Morning America."
"To hear this young girl breathe such fire into this song, I mean, it really sent the proverbial tingles up my spine," he added.
The New York Times wrote that Houston "possesses one of her generation's most powerful gospel-trained voices, but she eschews many of the churchier mannerisms of her forerunners. She uses ornamental gospel phrasing only sparingly, and instead of projecting an earthy, tearful vulnerability, communicates cool self-assurance and strength, building pop ballads to majestic, sustained peaks of intensity."
She would be criticized throughout her career for playing down her black roots to reach white audiences, even getting booed during the "Soul Train Awards" in 1989.
"Sometimes it gets down to that, you know?" she told Katie Couric in 1996. "You're not black enough for them. I don't know. You're not R&B enough. You're very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them."
Her marriage to Brown in 1992 was seen by some as an attempt to refute those critics -- coming as it did during the release of her first film, "The Bodyguard," in which Houston played a singer who falls in love with her bodyguard, played by Kevin Costner. The singer's mainstream appeal allowed audiences to look past the film's interracial aspect, and despite mixed reviews, the film and its soundtrack went on to huge success.