Not too many things get by Virginia Covington, educational administrator in the School of Medicine’s Office of Student Affairs.
But, somehow on Jan. 27, scores of cunning medical students slipped past her with a dozen pink roses, sandwiches, cupcakes, balloons and a cake on fire.
All this, and more, awaited her when she entered the lower amphitheater on a make-believe mission cooked up by her boss, Dr. Jerry Clark.
“Happy birthday,” some 200 voices roared, and Covington knew that, after working here for nearly two decades, she’d finally been had.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said, once fourth-year student Kevin Randolph had parked a birthday hat on her head. “Usually, I know everything.”
After extinguishing the letter-shaped candles spelling out “Happy Birthday,” Covington said, “I’m glad they didn’t have all the candles. Even I don’t have enough hot air to blow that out.”
Covington, who turned 60, has spent about a third of her years helping students get through medical school and, at times, life.
“She has served as surrogate mom for a generation,” said Clark, the school’s chief student affairs officer and associate dean for student affairs.
In November, she’ll celebrate her 20th anniversary here in a role she took following various jobs at what was then called the Employment Security Commission, Milwaukee Tool and a General Electric plant.
“I had worked at one time as a cashier at the Sunflower in Maywood Mart,” Covington said. One of her customers was Dr. Lincoln Arceneaux, Clark’s predecessor in the Office of Student Affairs.
When Covington found out he needed a secretary, she applied. “It worked out,” she said. “I loved it. I love the students. I was their mother; I still am.”
Lauren Schober, a second-year student from Diamondhead, was one of several students who waited in line to give Covington a hug as she held court at her party.
“She kind of takes care of us,” Schober said. “I don’t think I ever had any question she wasn’t able to help me with. You know you can always go to her.”
Sarah Ali, a third-year student who got wind of Covington’s approaching birthday earlier this month, was a major organizer of the surprise. “Everybody played a big role,” Ali said.
“But it’s a very small gesture compared to what she does for everyone. She deserves it, and more.”