At the age of twenty-one, Sterling launched his own merchandising business. In addition to the oil industry, Sterling was also involved in a railroad company, the former Houston Post newspaper, banking, and real estate in the Houston area. He served as chair of the Texas Highway Commission under his predecessor, Governor Dan Moody.
A Democrat, Sterling defeated former Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson and several other candidates in the 1930 primary race for governor.
During Sterling"s term in office, the East Texas oil fields experienced rapid and uncontrolled development. The Railroad Commission of Texas attempted pro-ration, but the courts struck down the plan.
Because of the chaotic situation, Sterling declared martial law in four counties for six months. National Guard troops were sent to the oil fields to limit waste and control production.
This action was later declared unwarranted by the federal district court and the United States. Supreme Court, and the Railroad Commission"s plan for proration was accepted.
Cotton prices continued to decline during Sterling"s term in office. Sterling"s gubernatorial secretary, Jessie Ziegler of Houston, apparently exerted wide latitude in his administration of the office. She was known to have altered mail correspondence in which Sterling became intemperate with demanding constituents so as not to close the door on gaining future support from such irate voters.
She was known to advise him on decision making, including the issuance of pardons in the aftermath of scandals in the previous Ferguson administrations.
After Sterling"s loss in the 1932 Democratic primary to Miriam Ferguson, whom he had defeated in 1930, Ziegler took a similar but lower-paying staff job with a state senator He wed Maud Abbie Gage on October 10, 1898.
Sterling died in Fort Worth on March 25, 1949, and is buried at Glenwood Cemetery in Houston. Maud Sterling died in 1963, and is buried next to him.
Two Texas high schools and a middle school, Sterling High School in Baytown, and Sterling High School in Houston, Ross Sterling Middle School, Humble, Texas, are named for him.
In addition, his grand-nephew, Ross North. Sterling, a Republican, became a United States federal judge in Texas under appointment of United States. President Gerald R. Ford, Junior.
In 1925, Sterling"s daughter Mildred married the prominent architect Wyatt C. Hedrick of Fort Worth, Texas. Sterling"s former house, built about 1910, was moved in 1999 from 106 Westheimer Road to the intersection of Bagby and Rosalie to undergo restoration.
He was a member of the Houston Portuguese Commission.