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June 11, 1998

A glimpse into Pitt history — through the eyes of one who was there

When her leg was bothering her and doctors were feeding her pain pills and she wasn't getting better, where do you suppose 86-year-old retired Pitt professor Margaret E. Covert, living in Arizona, would come? To Pittsburgh, of course, where she spent most of her professional life.

Covert came to town in May and stayed with friend and former colleague Marigold Edwards, professor in the Department of Health, Physical and Recreation Education, who lives a few steps from campus. "The doctors did the procedure, and I'm going to be just fine," Covert said.

Known as Peg to her friends, Covert has a long and storied association with the University:

* A professional association of 32 years of full-time teaching, culminating in the title professor emerita, 1978.

* An academic association of even longer duration: earning a master's degree in education in 1946, before joining the physical education faculty. Several administrative positions over the years, including director of physical education for women, School of Liberal Arts.

* A personal association with more than 60 years of anecdotes and experiences to prove it. "I'm not good with dates," she said, "but I have a good memory of what happened." Sample her curriculum vitae.

* Master's degree in education, Pitt, 1946. Appointed assistant professor of physical education at Pitt, 1946. Appointed associate professor, 1949, full professor, 1953. Director of intramural and recreational sports. Introduced women cheerleaders, 1956. President of the University Faculty Club, 1956-57.

* Headed the first program of its kind to teach physical education to children with cerebral palsy and their parents, 1959.

* Helped introduce women's intercollegiate athletics, building up women's gymnastics, volleyball and swimming teams to go with the established basketball team, 1971; named head of women's athletics program, 1972.

* President of the Pennsylvania State Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 1972.

* Taught physical education for primary school teachers; supervised the practice teaching component; observed student-teaching in the classrooms at local grammar schools.

* Introduced modern dance to the University's curriculum, 1947. Taught international dance.

* Introduced fencing to the physical education curriculum, 1959.

* Taught gymnastics. Coached field hockey.

* Earned a teaching sabbatical, University of Melbourne, University of Sydney and Teachers College, Sydney, Australia, 1961.

When Covert came to Pitt in the early '40s, it's safe to say, times were different. As a graduate student, she met the force behind the Cathedral of Learning, Chancellor John G. Bowman, who "sat in a big chair and talked to us; he was very impressive." Bowman was the first of seven chancellors to serve during her time at Pitt.

She talked fondly of the Cathedral of Learning. "I started [as assistant professor] in the basement," she said, "where in those days the physical education department offices were housed, along with the gymnasium and lockers."

In the pre-Trees Hall era, swimming was taught at the Young Men and Women's Hebrew Association, on South Bellefield, now Bellefield Hall. Tennis classes were held on the courts in Mellon Park.

"We used to practice field hockey on the Cathedral lawn," Covert said. "Dean [of Women Students Helen P.] Rush didn't like that, those bare legs out there, but, you know, you educate as you go, times change, you have to keep up with the times."

She remembers similar resistance to women cheerleaders: "Tom Hamilton [then athletics director] was against it. Dean Rush was against it. I don't know if she felt it lowered the University's prestige or if it wasn't appropriate for women's behavior. But [then Chancellor Edward] Litchfield handled it beautifully. He said, 'Now Dean Rush, we're not here to decide if we're going to have cheerleaders. We're going to have cheerleaders and I'm putting Miss Covert in charge for one year to start it off.' Well, luckily, we had 97 girls try out, so we had the cream of the crop of the women athletes. And they always dressed well, and were well-behaved, and so there was no comeback."

Her favorite chancellor? "Litchfield was my pride and joy. I thought he was terrific. When he came I was president of the faculty club, and he would go around, you know, to meet everybody — he was like that, and he just always had his ears open for improvements. One Christmas, with a bunch of people there and some were exchanging gifts, and he said to me, 'My dear, I've got another present for you: I just signed the paper for your sabbatical.' And I went to Australia for a half-year."

Covert also praised Ruth Crawford Mitchell, the first director of the Nationality Rooms Program. "She was wonderful. We used to have masques, you know, dance shows, and I would say to her, 'We need costumes,' and we'd get costumes, and they were authentic."

Covert's department relocated its offices from the basement to the Cathedral's 25th floor, and eventually to Trees Hall.

She said she convinced University administrators to put two pools in Trees Hall instead of one, which was called for in the original design.

"I told them: 'We're building for the future here. Let's not skimp; let's do it right.' I also designed and decorated a lot of the interior, the lounge and some offices."

* Covert's memories cover a wide range of events and are often sprinkled with humor. Her first recollection: "I remember coming up from West Virginia, visiting my cousin as a girl, and where the Cathedral of Learning is now, there was just a big hole in the ground."

Later, when she joined the faculty, she remembered that "People from West Virginia, they used to tell us, you know, that they're always in bare feet. I used to say, 'If anyone calls, tell them I'm out, but my shoes are still here; I'll be back.' "

Among her fondest memories are her traveling experiences. "The drama department was doing a production of 'Brigadoon' [in 1957] and it had a little 'road tour' to military bases and I got to go because I was the girls' choreographer," she said. "Three of the show's stops were the Azores, Iceland and Bermuda. Imagine packing for that trip!"

And she learned some lessons along the way: "Very early on, I needed some book shelves, I guess, and I filled out all these forms, and after about four months, I said, 'Wait a minute,' and I went to the workshop and I said, 'I need a couple pieces of wood about that big by that big,' and it took about a minute. So I learned you go to the source."

Referring to her deep love for Pitt and Pittsburgh, Covert said, "I think too many people come here and don't take advantage of the amenities. In this area, I can get free transportation downtown, there's Phipps Conservatory, good eating places, not to mention all the things happening at the University. There's so much to do here.

"Of course, if you spend more than 30 years in a place, you become very fond and attached to it.

"I don't suppose they do it anymore," she said, "But in those days, the University was helpful in my building a house in Fox Chapel. Carpenters came out — you paid your way, of course, but it was quite reasonable — and you could get furniture on discount.

"It's a wonderful life at the University. I enjoyed it so much. And of course, the students…. Watching them grow and learn was wonderful. I've even had babies named after me.

"I'd love to hear from anyone who remembers me." Covert's address is 13508 West White Rock Drive, Sun City West, Arizona, 85375.

Still active, Covert even golfs now. "Oh, I hit it around. It's good exercise.

"Where I live, I'm on the board of property owners. I also lead tours for our living community. We all pack in a bus and head out to the desert or the mountains. I just love it. But I still miss Pittsburgh.

"I heard from [retired director of the Pitt Book Center] Mary Bonach that they're having a retirees get-together, which is something that would bring me back to Pitt. — Except, I'm going to be in Puerto Rico that day" attending a talk by Edwards.

"I've even been thinking of moving back here again," she said. "Pitt is in my heart." Her shoes may still be here, too. Because no one but Peg Covert could fill them.

–Peter Hart

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