ST. PETERSBURG — Dr. Ira Ross loved music — Ella Fitzgerald, Broadway show tunes, jazz. But he was messianic about opera.
It was where the emotions of an impoverished childhood and his early success as an adult could meet: in season tickets to every opera house in driving distance.
The music moved him, literally. He bobbed and nodded at arias he had been listening to for decades.
Starting in the late 1980s, Dr. Ross brought a wide range of local performers to Eckerd College for an appreciative public. Later, he hosted an educational series with the Florida Orchestra. Both long-running events were free.
Dr. Ross was so well known as a kind of music ambassador, some might not have known that he was also a renowned periodontist who lectured around the world.
Dr. Ross, an expert in his field who created an opera education Web site in retirement, died Thursday. He was 89.
Born in Harlem, young Ira and his single mother had next to nothing. They lived in an uncle's attic in New Jersey. Ira worked at the uncle's vegetable market; he and his mother saved what they made for his college.
His drive and unusual memory propelled him through school at warp speed. He graduated from Uppsala University at 16. He was a dentist by age 21.
The Air Force stationed him in Africa, where he corresponded for two years with an old friend, Helene Strousse. "His letters were charming and bright, and he was obviously intelligent and sensitive," said Helene Ross, 89, who accepted Ira's marriage proposal on his return in 1945.
He passed up general dentistry for periodontal dentistry, which treats bone and gum tissues. He wrote a much-translated book about occlusion, the conditions that produce a malformed bite.
He moved to St. Petersburg in retirement, in part to participate in the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College. In the late 1980s he started the Festival of the Performing Arts, which treated the public to jazz, vocal and classical music performances at Eckerd. "Meet Your Orchestra," a preconcert educational series Dr. Ross organized through the Florida Orchestra, started in the early 1990s and lasted 12 years.
In appreciation, longtime orchestra director Thomas Wilkins presented Dr. Ross with a framed and autographed photo of the orchestra, and his baton.
In the late 1990s, Dr. Ross launched the CD project "Opera for Everyone," taking listeners through The Barber of Seville, La Traviata, Carmen and Madame Butterfly. It took about a year to produce each CD.
He distributed the CDs for free to educators worldwide. They are still available for sale on the Internet or by free downloads at operaforeveryone.com. Every plot twist and musical interlude is narrated in his sing-songy New Jersey accent.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.