Thomas Leak Covington Jr. died peacefully in his sleep—just as he wanted to– on December 3, 2021 at the age of 82. Tom spent his last days showered with love, laughter, music, poems and hugs with his family. His last words were “I love you.”
Tom was born on February 19, 1939 in Rockingham, NC. He was the only child of Thomas Leak Covington, Sr and Louise Greene Covington. According to legend, Tom spent his childhood toggling between mayhem and serving as the family “prince”. Daily activities ranged anywhere between drag racing the back streets of Rockingham in his 1932 Chevy to singing in the church choir. He was also an Eagle Scout, pitched lefty on the baseball team, and was voted “Best All Around” as a senior at Rockingham High School.
Tom attended Davidson College, graduating with a degree in English in 1961. He probably spent more time creating mayhem at the SAE fraternity house than studying in the library, and graduated with friendships he would keep for the rest of his life. Careful not to neglect his princely duties, he also sang in the Davidson Men’s Chorus. Davidson was incredibly special to him, and he stayed after graduation to serve as the Director of the Davidson Student Union. He received his Master’s in Guidance and Counseling from NCSU and stayed on to work in the Office of Student Activities for a few years.
Tom met his wife, Millie Ravenel, in 1968 where they worked at the same management consulting firm in Atlanta. Tom and Millie lived in Raleigh and had two children, Simmons and Archer. Tom and Millie were later divorced but maintained a very close friendship throughout his life. “Not bad, for an ex-wife, huh?” he would say after she did something kind for him.
Tom was a talented musician and loved music – from Gregorian chants to jazz, gospel, and folk music. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and his instrument of choice was the autoharp. In his early Raleigh days, he and Millie hosted annual hymn-sings in their backyard, with Tom playing autoharp and leading the singing. He and his Davidson friends formed a folk music group called the Sandy Mush Boys and Darcy, where their harmonies, autoharp, guitar, and dulcimer made sweet and happy music from countless front porches. Their music was the featured program at their Davidson College 40th and 50th reunions for the Class of ‘61.
Tom loved the Western North Carolina mountains. He moved to his beloved Big Sandy Mush near Asheville in 1977 and worked for Buncombe County government. He was a better government worker than farmer—his attempt at entering the Christmas Tree business yielded a field of firewood. But his amazing neighbors were able to use the land to successfully grow the sweetest silver queen corn and tobacco this side of the French Broad River.
Tom also hosted many “Spring Thaw” weekends at his farm, where the pattern of mayhem continued, complete with pickin’ on the porch, camping in the fields, and telling lies from rocking chairs.
In 1981, Tom moved back to Raleigh to become the NC General Assembly’s Director of Fiscal Research–a post he held for 18 years. As one former legislator shared, “Tom had little patience with fools or self-centered politicians, but he understood that you had to be able to work with them to at least some degree, or what needed to be done would not happen.” He led an amazing team and loved them deeply.
After retirement from the NC Legislature in 1999, Tom was the Executive Director of the NC Progress board where he spent his days thinking about the future of his beloved state and working to ensure that NC was on track toward continuous improvement for its land and citizens.
Tom was also involved in many community projects and served on many boards. His passion was to support those who struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. A recovered alcoholic himself—he would have gotten his 30-year chip this coming January—Tom served as a sponsor to many. He helped to found The Healing Place, a recovery center dedicated to helping the homeless and underserved struggling with addiction. He also served on the boards of Pavillion, another incredible treatment center, and HandMade in America, which helped craft artists in Western NC small towns.
Upon retirement, Tom moved permanently to Big Sandy Mush. His best days were spent sitting on the front porch watching the seasons change on the mountains. Often sitting beside him were his two Plott Hounds (NC’s official state dog, of course!), one of whom was named ‘Liston Swain’ after NC legislators Liston Ramsey and Bob Swain. He’d swap stories on the porch with his neighbors and friends who frequently visited his haven in the mountains. He entertained his grandchildren by helping them build fairy houses in the woodshop or pushing them on the swings underneath the 150-year old oak tree in the backyard. He played his autoharp and sang with family and friends, pickin’ and singing deep into the evenings.
The most important part of Tom’s life was his family. He is survived by daughter Simmons Covington Lettre and her husband Marcel Lettre and children McKinley Covington Lettre and Amelia Mills Lettre; son Archer Covington, wife Meg Marchant Covington and eight-month old grandson Thomas Archer Covington; and his amazingly committed ex-wife and friend Millie Ravenel.
Tom moved to Bethesda, Maryland in July 2021 to be near his daughter and granddaughters. His family was finally able to see him often, and they spent the last six months just holding hands in the breeze or singing songs together.
Tom had a lot of sayings that he repeated regularly. One he lived by was, “There ain’t no bus you can get on that I can’t ride.” He was always there for his family and for his many friends over his lifetime–and was particularly calming in times of crisis or confusion.
“Go gently” was what he told his family every time they pulled out of his driveway to head home after a visit. Tom did just that in his death, and his family imagines him engaged in a great reunion as we speak, approaching it all with wonder.
A Celebration of Tom’s Life will be held January 8, 2022 at 1pm, reception immediately following, at Junction West, 310 S. West Street Raleigh, NC. Parking is available at the parking deck, located at the northeast intersection of West Street and Martin Street (diagonal from Junction West–more info at www.junctionwestnc.com)
Out of concern for the safety of all attendees, we are requiring everyone attending to be fully vaccinated. Masks should be worn when not eating or drinking.
The family will also hold a second Celebration of Life in the amazing Big Sandy Mush this spring. Tom left very specific instructions for his ashes to be put in an Ingles grocery bag and planted under an apple tree overlooking “The Mush” so he can spend eternity watching the seasons change in the most beautiful place on earth. More details on the western NC celebration to come.
Tom’s family is grateful to those who have supported the Covingtons through the many years. Friends and neighbors helped Tom stay at his beloved home in Big Sandy Mush for as long as possible despite the cloudiness of dementia and also supported Tom’s kids as they tried to navigate care long-distance. The amazing caregivers and nurses at Brightview Woodmont gifted Tom with excellent health care and kindness in his final chapter in Bethesda.
In lieu of flowers, please consider donating in Tom’s memory to The Sandy Mush Community Center SMCC, PO Box 1686, Leicester, NC 28748 or The Healing Place, 1751 Goode St., Raleigh, NC 27603. Both organizations are important to the Covington family.