Donald Covington '66

Hitting the road with the circus
October 1, 2007
Step right up: Covington, second from right, is the Big Apple Circus' jack-of-all-trades

Step right up: Covington, second from right, is the Big Apple Circus' jack-of-all-trades. Courtesy of Donald Covington

Of the different colors and patterns that constitute the fabric of Donald Covington's life, travel is the thread that links them all. As a former U.S. Navy captain, he spent many years traveling around the world to such places as Vietnam, Paris, and Hong Kong.

Now, as company manager of the Big Apple Circus, he continues his
life of travel, though a few of the details have changed—instead of globetrotting, he's state-hopping, and his colleagues' uniforms are now clown costumes.

As vastly different as the two professions seem, the similarities between life in the Navy and life in the circus are the stuff on which Covington thrives: The circus "has some of the same aspects of the things I liked about the military," he says. "The job is not the same from one day to the next. You never know what's going
to happen."

He also notes that, like the Navy, the circus brings together a diverse group of people, each of whom contributes a different element to the success of the whole. The resulting camaraderie and professionalism make Covington proud of what he does.

Covington's love of circuses began in childhood. His father ushered at the Shrine Circuses that came through town, so he got plenty of free passes.

At Duke, he pursued new fields, although the circus was never far from mind. He wanted to be a marine biologist, but his freshman chemistry and math grades said otherwise. He then became a psychology major and got involved with the music scene at Duke, ultimately joining the marching and pep bands. At the time, Duke's basketball team was doing well, going to three Final Fours, so he traveled frequently with the team.

By the time he graduated, the Vietnam War lottery was in place. Hoping to avoid being drafted, he auditioned for the Navy band, but his recruiters saw leadership potential, as well as musical ability. He was named an aviation officer.

"My life had turned a corner again, away from music, away from the circus, into the military for what I thought would be long enough to satisfy my obligation," Covington says.

What he initially thought would be a brief stint in the Navy turned into a thirty-year career. When he retired in 1995, circus life suddenly became a possibility again, and he accepted a position with the Big Apple Circus, a not-for-profit, traveling one-ring show. He has worked for Big Apple since then, with the exception of a two-year break so that his youngest daughter, who had been attending the circus' One Ring Schoolhouse, could finish high school in one place. During that time, he was administrative director of Fern Street Circus.

As the circus' company manager, Covington is essentially a jack-of-all-trades, responsible for the artists who form the core of the show and for bringing in guest artists each year. He describes himself as the link between the performers and management, while also managing on-site publicity. (Covington's wife, Janice Covington, is the wardrobe supervisor for the circus.)

Despite his itinerant lifestyle, Covington says, the circus has always afforded him the opportunity to return to familiar faces.

"It's a very small community.
You bump into people that you've worked with or that you know," Covington says. "It's kind of like going home whenever you have a chance to go to a circus."

And for the people outside the ring?

"For the period of time that you're here, you escape from your everyday world. You have a feeling that your life is changed," Covington says. "That's the secret of what we do. It's seeing ordinary people do extraordinary things."