Bill Covert’s Eckerd Maritime Legacy

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billcovertBill Covert, Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Waterfront at Eckerd College, retired this past August after 42 years on the staff. His legacy is an indelible list of accomplishments, not only for the College, but also for the maritime community, noted James Annarelli, Ph.D., Vice President for Student Life, Dean of Students. Bill’s tenure began in 1971 and over the next four decades-plus he became the primary force in the creation of theCollege’s nationally-recognized Waterfront program. He began his Eckerd career as part-time Coordinator of Activities and Sailmaster at the Waterfront. He was, in those early years, instrumental in developing the Florida Presbyterian (Eckerd) Search, Rescue and Safety Team, later to become ECSAR. He has been a critical member of the Tampa Bay maritime community, helping lead the recovery during the tragic Blackthorn and Skyway Bridge disasters in 1980.

In 1973, Bill was appointed to the full-time position of Director of Waterfront Activities and, a few years later, was given responsibility for Campus Recreation, Intramurals and the Game Room. Under his leadership, what were initially recreational activities only – sailing, water skiing, and wind surfing – became, in the 1980s, varsity sports, with the Tritons now part of the Sunshine State Conference.billcovertwithstudents

Bill’s tireless work has impacted the lives of generations of Eckerd students in a manner that is unparalleled. The College’s beautiful Waterfront facilities and well-established Waterfront recreation, ECSAR and Sailing programs stand as a tribute to the indelible mark that Bill has made on the Eckerd community.

In addition to being well loved by members of the Eckerd College family, Bill’s talents and accomplishments have been recognized through the years by the regional boating community and by the US Coast Guard. Bill has been a Marine Consultant for Consumer’s Union/Consumer Reports, a Board Member and Vice Chairperson of the Marine Industries Association, and the founder of the Safe Boating Council of Greater Tampa Bay.            

Bill was initially honored with an August 30 farewell reception in the President’s Dining Room. At a September St. Petersburg City Council meeting, Covert (center in above photo, with tie) received a Sunshine Ambassador Award. He is flanked by his daughter Angela, wife Lynn and Eckerd colleagues, with City Council members and Mayor Foster in the back row. A formal retirement dinner for Bill is set for Alumni Weekend, March 7, 2014.

Covert Career & Legacy

Bill Covert’s family moved from Chicago in 1961 to the Three Palms Pointe billcovertinnavigationroomwaterfront community in St Pete Beach where he grew up and graduated from Bishop Barry - now St Petersburg Catholic High School. Growing up on the water, he “found” his first boat at age 14, washed up on the beach near home, restored it and sailed happily for some time. A career in financial services found him with Bache & Company – then the second largest U.S. brokerage house – in Atlanta, in the early 1970’s. Not really interested in that kind of future, he moved back to St Pete Beach . “At that time,” he recalls, Florida Presbyterian College was unsure about the future of its watersports program due to an accidental drowning. [It became Eckerd in 1972 to honor the late Jack M. Eckerd, a prominent Florida civic leader and businessman whose $10 million-plus unrestricted gifts and commitments to the institution have helped to insure its continuing excellence.] Athletic Director Jim Harley hired me part-time for about 15 hours a week.

eckerdcollegerescueboatThe students were very enthusiastic and after two years President Billy Wireman hired me full-time. It sort of became all-consuming for me – my own ‘Big Brothers & Big Sisters’ community – and with the students’ continuing enthusiasm, we said ‘Let’s grow this program together.’“ I am very proud that many of those students from the early 70’s through the 80’s and 90’s are still active as Friends of the Waterfront booster group. With 400 to 500 members, it’s Eckerd’s largest alumni affinity group. So many of my students are still engaged and supportive over generational lines. We’ve seen them graduate, get careers and families, and create many success stories. A number are in the marine area – owning marinas, producing marine equipment, operating service sites, and many still compete in sailing, water skiing, board skiing and other watersports.“ Most memorable for me over the past four decades is the evolution of the waterfront programs, combined with lifetime sports, education and community service. The Search & Rescue Program in particular has been an extraordinary love affair for me. Initially created to enhance the safety of our waterfront activities, it has expanded off-campus to become an award-winning program from the Coast Guard and other government entities. We were among the first responders in 1980 to both the Blackthorn and Skyway Bridge disasters, among other significant highlights. Our ECSAR communications center has many screens to display critical information. ECSAR is part of the 911 system and can communicate on both marine channels and the Pinellas County 800 MHz system.  “Our six dock systems and three storage systems can handle over 200 boats, including U.S. Geological Survey vessels such as the G.K. Gilbert, and four S&R boats with about 50 students. The docks are ‘guarded’ by five resident Ospreys and many Pelican visitors.” Bill was active in the Marine Industries Association that prospered from the late 50’s through the 90’s, but dissolved after the economic disaster of the past decade that saw many smaller businesses - many Mom & Pop entities, disappear. He also helped organize the Safe Boating Council of Greater Tampa Bay that lasted about 15 years, but gave way to other, larger groups involved in boating safety. Asked about the future, Bill told Paradise News, “It was a totally voluntary retirement. I’m 66 now and am still young enough to do a lot of things with my wife Lynn, including traveling. I love watersports, kayaking and fishing, and have a lot of friends with boats of all types and sizes! Our daughter Angela is a student at Eckerd, so we have a lot of plans. I know I will stay involved with my extended waterfront community of former students and many friends.”

One Protégé’s Testimonial

One of thousands of Bill’s protégés through his 42 years is Kevin Sherburne. He and wife Carol represent the third generation of St. Pete Beach-based HWH Electronics, founded in 1957. They have worked together in the business for more than 35 years as the company continues to focus on customer education, involvement and the most advanced communication, navigation, satellite, safety and entertainment system solutions available for fun, reliable and safe boating. “I first met Bill Covert in 1974,” Kevin recalls. “Though he had only been at Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd College for  several years, he convinced me I could come there as a student to get a good liberal arts education, sail competitively and be a part of helping build a stronger intercollegiate sailing program. At that time there was an eclectic collection of older recreational boats, based around an old converted wooden archery shed structure, that essentially made up the Waterfront Program facilities.

“Bill’s innate ability to be a master at mentoring students has been absolutely critical to building the program into what it is today. From the beginning, being a part of that program with the different activities, clubs and organizations actually meant students had the opportunity to apply what they were learning in the classroom, to grow themselves with additional learned personal and practical skills, while helping to grow a specific area of the program all at the same time. There were significant challenges to overcome and many opportunities to  address over the years. As you can see today, the overall program has come a long way, following Bill’s leadership and vision, with the participation of literally thousands of motivated students and student leaders who helped develop the program along the way. “In my particular case, it was finding a shared passion for general boating safety with Bill that led to shifting my extracurricular activity focus from sailing towards becoming more involved with the EECSAR Team. This was also a time (circa 1977) when the college decided to offer volunteer Search & Rescue services that could be available to the Tampa Bay general public boating community. There were new opportunities to work with multiple outside government agencies such as the National Red Cross, US Coast Guard and the local Marine Industry organizations, as the Eckerd team capabilities, training and services were expanded.

“Even after my successful graduation from Eckerd and entering a professional career within the marine industry, I have been able to stay involved with Bill and the program as a corporate supporter and sponsor. I have enjoyed and benefited from working alongside Bill as he continued to increase his executive leadership role within the Marine Industries Association here in Tampa Bay throughout the 80’s and his co-founding of the Safe Boating Council of Tampa Bay that went through the 90’s, which led us to working with the USCG and the Port of Tampa Safety & Security Committee after 9/11.            

“One of the most important outcomes from Bill’s involvement, commitment and passion over the years, was the bringing together of many organizations and agencies to improve communications, awareness and a eckerdcollegewaterfrontcoordination of efforts towards improving boating safety in the Tampa Bay community. Finally, the experience of working with a person who has affected and improved the lives of so many over time is simply priceless. I speak for all his students in saying, ‘Thank you, Bill!” Summing up Bill’s contributions, Dr. Annarelli said, “It is not an overstatement to describe Bill Covert as an Eckerd College treasure. His impact upon the Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd College community will be enduring. His day-to-day presence on campus, however, will be sorely missed.”

[Steve Traiman is President of Creative Copy by Steve Traiman in St. Pete Beach, offering freelance business writing services. He can be reached via email at  straiman@mindspring.com.]

SIDEBAR- An ECSAR Rescue

Jordan Roos, son of Paradise News co-owners Pete and Renee Roos, has his own Eckerd Search & Rescue memory. He recalls, “I was about 15, it was a gusty day, a hurricane was brewing near Miami and I had to get out on the water. We had a small a catamaran and I invited the younger neighbor kid to come out with me. We quickly found ourselves about five miles out, keeping an eye on the Don CeSar, which was now the size of a monopoly piece. I started a tack heading back to shore, jumping the waves like never before. We made it back in most of the way, but as we jumped the last wave I heard a snap and then the mast started falling until it came to rest in the water. We were too far from shore to swim and I knew we had to ride it out.            

“Several hours passed and a few Coast Guard planes flew by, so I was confident we had been spotted and simply needed to wait. Darkness set in, it was getting cold and we wrapped ourselves inside the sail trying to stay warm. My friend was crying at this point while I held it together and tried to console him. He spotted the last buoy in the channel and I crawled down on the pontoon and started swimming the boat that way, seeing photo-algae for the first time all around my arms lighting up.            

“I lassoed the last buoy and after what seemed like several hours, we heard a boat and saw the searchlight. They finally spotted our wreckage and as they came to us I noticed it was an Eckerd College Search and Rescue boat. We climbed aboard, I accepted a thermal jacket and tried to look cool as there were a couple of cute college girls on board. Now that the crisis was over and the adrenaline was subsiding I felt my stomach take a turn for the worse and ended up chumming over the side. Needless to say I didn’t look so cool and I did not ask for a phone number!”

 

Story by STEVE TRAIMAN     
Photos by Eckerd College & Steve Traiman

Date: November 1, 2013

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