THE COVINGTON LEGACY--A good neighbor, Don Covington died ten years ago (May 2002). For reporters covering North Park over the years there have been far easier words to pen than these.
When Don’s son Paul notified friends, colleagues, neighbors and this newspaper that North Park’s preeminent historian, scholar, artist and community leader had passed away on May 13, the sad news came as a thunderbolt. So many of us held on to the phone in disbelief and so many of us cried.
Don and Karon Covington were the first to knock on the door after the first issue of North Park News was published to express congratulations and support.
The early hardships of publishing a community newspaper were smoothed over by remembering the Covington’s early encouragement. “After the first four issues, we thought of quitting,” says Co-founder Phyllis Shess, “but we couldn’t face the Covington’s if we quit.” North Park News still proudly publishes today never once missing an issue.
Don Covington added such immeasurable grace to North Park. His contributions to our history and legacy are as rich as his art and his gentle leadership.
He and Karon, his wife of 48 years, remain the conscience and the backbone of so many causes and accomplishments in and around North Park and in and around San Diego’s Historical community. Death came at 73 from pneumonia brought on by chronic leukemia.
Don was a foremost a teacher. He shared what he understood in a series of lectures in the community and at the San Diego Historical Society. He taught college students at SDSU fine arts, interior design and how to appreciate it by understanding history. He and Karon taught an entire city that older neighborhoods are not just old houses, but treasures to be preserved, restored and celebrated. Their ability to communicate the importance of 20th century Arts & Crafts design and architecture is why North Park is in renaissance today.
Don and Karon practiced what they lectured. Their home built in 1916 by builder/designer David Owen Dryden is a classic of restoration. Located on the southwest corner of 28th & Myrtle this modest, yet finely detailed home is a blueprint for all Craftsman bungalow owners to mimic.
The community learned something new about bungalows and the history of North Park at each lecture by Don whether it be a sold out function for the Friends of the Marston House at the San Diego Museum of History or at a North Park Community Association event.
Don will be missed but not forgotten.
“Don was a priceless asset for North Park,” said Christine Kehoe, who represented District 3 as a San Diego Councilmember and how is a member of the State Assembly. He was so knowledgeable on the history and culture of San Diego, especially craftsman architecture, furniture and design. Clearly, from his interest you could tell he had a passion for this period and easily excited homeowners to appreciate what they had and to preserve and maintain its integrity. He helped us recognize the gems we have in our midst throughout San Diego. His writing, lectures and public speaking brought craftsman beauty to a whole new generation. He and Karon did a wonderful job for North Park's anniversary and their contributions are lasting.”
Pat Kelly remembers Don and his docent led tours of the Marston House. She said, "Don always emphasized how people lived in such a home. He related what family life was like for people in that era. He was a people oriented person and examined how people lived their lives, just not the physical surroundings.”
Jim Baker, Chairman of the Friends of the Marston House points out, “our organization has had a very successful lecture series for years thanks entirely to Don. I had the honor of introducing Don at this first lecture and we were all captivated by his gripping lecture style and the ability to impart his subject matter to his audience.”
Brent Curd, who like Don became one of the first Marston House docents some 12 years ago recalled, "Don was the kind of person who had a right to brag....but never did. He was generous with his time and never expected anything in return for his efforts. He was a pleasure to know and if you came around him feeling rather low then it wasn't very long at all that he was able to make you feel better . This would occur by just being in his presence."
The following anecdote from the obituary by Jack Williams and Ann Jarmusch, Union-Tribune [May 17, 2002] captures Don’s manner: “…Lynn Susholtz, an artist and neighbor of the Covingtons, said she was going to replace the green mottled tiles around the fireplace when Mr. Covington convinced them otherwise.
“ ‘He said, ‘if you do, make sure you don’t throw them away. They probably are one of the most valuable parts of your house.’ He was just letting us know in a gentle way,’ says Susholtz, “that the house had historic value we were unaware of.’”
Burlingame’s Janet Russell adds, "How well I remember my first meeting with Karon and Don. About ten years ago I noticed a picture in the Sunday U-T Home section of their lovely living room. What captured my eye was beautiful wood molding along the ceiling. It was so much like our home. The accompanying article was about Don and his knowledge about bungalow craftsmanship. I told my husband I would like to phone him and see if he knew about our house.
“My husband responded, ‘Go ahead and call.’ When I did, Don answered so graciously. I asked him if he knew anything about the homes in the Burlingame area. His reply was, ‘What street do you live on?’ I told him and gave him the street number. To my astonishment he said, ‘I'm researching YOUR house right now.’
“What a coincidence and how fortunate for my husband and I that I placed that call. From that amazing first conversation we all became very close friends,” adds Janet Russell, “I miss so very much our dear friend."
Don soon researched, wrote, illustrated and published “Burlingame, The Tract of Character 1912-1929.” He was also a regular contributor to the Journal of San Diego History, North Park News and other publications including a definitive article on David Owen Dryden’s North Park homes in American Bungalow. The latter considered one of the leading journals of the Arts & Crafts Movement.
At his death, he and Karon were researching and writing the “History of North Park.” So far, the manuscript is finished through 1940. With support from family, friends and the community that loves them we urge Karon to continue such a labor of love. To even begin such a project is ample proof of the unselfish love for community and our collective history that Don and Karon Covington have so generously gifted to our part of town.
“Don made you feel good and it was always a unique pleasure to talk to him on the phone because you always hung up refreshed with laughter ringing in your ears,” says Jim Baker.
A good neighbor died ten years ago and it will be impossible to forget him.
A version of this updated article by Tom Shess first appeared in the June 2002 issue of North Park News. Don Covington was a frequent contributor to the community monthly he inspired.
Images: Don Covington, posing for a 1998 North Park News feature on the remarkable homes of Burlingame. Note the Churrigueresque style home pictured behind Don is not on the 2012 home tour next Saturday. It is a beautiful work of architecture and it will celebrate its 100th anniversary July 13, 2012. Photo: Copyright 2012 by Tom Shess. All rights reserved.
Covington quote on a sidewalk marker 28th & Upas Streets.
UPDATE: Don's manuscript is now more than finished, adds Katherine Hon of the North Park Historical Society. "The History of North Park, Part 1 has become an extremely popular community history coffee table book that has sold more than 2000 copies. Additionally, the North Park Historical Society is honored to be carrying on his legacy also by reprinting his Burlingame book with permission of the family, and finally achieving designation of the Dryden Historic District." Steve and Katherine Hon along with other members of the North Park Historical Society earned a 2012 People in Preservation Award by SOHO for their efforts in bringing about the Dryden District in North Park. Awards program will be May 31, 2012.
Top of the Tank is an occasional series on life in historic North Park, one of the nation's most diverse and architecturally significant neighborhoods with special emphasis on the Arts & Crafts Era (1890-1920).