January 24, 2022

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In Memoriam: Virginia Covington

Published on Monday, January 24, 2022

The Medical Center extends its sympathy to the family of a former employee in appreciation for the loved one’s contributions to the academic health sciences center.

Virginia Covington

Virginia Covington

Virginia Hardy Covington was not an attorney, but there was no greater advocate, no keener counselor, no one who, either on their behalf or for their own edification, was more apt to lay down the law for medical students at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Covington, 66, of Pearl, passed away on January 15 at her home. She had retired from the Medical Center in April of last year, officially as project manager in the Office of Student Affairs, School of Medicine; unofficially, as the students’ surrogate mom.

“I can tell you that if I had gone through medical school without her, I would have felt lost more often, I would have laughed less often. I would have felt less comfortable swinging by the Office of Student Affairs,” said JoJo Dodd of Picayune, a fourth-year medical student.

“My experience, I believe, has been like those of other medical students: It was better for Miss Virginia having been there.”

Covington felt a personal responsibility for helping maintain the supply of doctors, or at least medical students, in Mississippi, said Dr. Jerry Clark, student liaison for Student Affairs in the School of Medicine.

“We can’t afford to lose a trainee here in a state that is so behind in the number of physicians it needs,” said Clark, who worked with Covington in his former role as the medical school’s chief student affairs officer and associate dean for Student Affairs.

“My guess is that, by encouraging them, by checking on them, by connecting them to resources, no other single individual did more outside the classroom to ensure that medical students were successful. She made a tremendous impact on a generation of physicians who trained here.”

Virginia Covington and husband John get in the spirit during a luau party in September 2019. (Photo courtesy of Christina McAlpin)
Virginia Covington and husband John get in the spirit during a luau party in September 2019. (Photo courtesy of Christina McAlpin)

Covington was born in Memphis but moved at a young age to Jackson with her family, in 1962. Later, she left for Starkville to be with one of the loves of her life, Mississippi State University.

“The only way to make her mad,” Dodd said, “was to disrespect a medical student or talk bad about Mississippi State football.”

After her sojourn in Oktibbeha County, Virginia Hardy met John Covington while working for the Mississippi Employment Security Commission. Soon, she left that job, but not John, behind; they would be married for 44 years.

Eventually, she hired on with an insurance company, but the job put a crimp in her family life and her nerves.

“She started searching for something less stressful,” said the older of her two daughters, Anita East of Mendenhall, an RN and clinical outcomes coordinator, trauma management, at UMMC.

“My grandmother, Nancy Hardy, worked in continuing education in the School of Nursing and told her the Medical Center was a good place to work and she would be able to spend more time with her family.” Covington took the bait.

A one-time cashier for a Sunflower grocery story, she had served a customer named Dr. Lincoln Arceneaux; that meeting would prove to be the turning point in her working life.

Now associate dean emeritus of student affairs for the School of Medicine, and associate professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology, Arceneaux was also Clark’s predecessor in student affairs. When Covington found out he needed a secretary, she applied.

“It worked out,” she said in an interview several years ago. “I loved it. I love the students. I was their mother; I still am.”

As those around her in the office soon learned, she was a person of strong work habits and even stronger convictions.

“She didn’t miss a day and she didn’t go to lunch,” said Clark, who succeeded Arceneaux in student affairs. “She came in early and always beat me there to work.

“She was also quick to give you her opinion.”

And you didn’t even have to ask for it, Dodd said. “But it was given in good faith. She was integral to everything that happened on the medical student side. If you had a problem, a resolution would be found.”

Peyton Thigpen – who would become Dr. Peyton Thigpen, a psychiatry resident at UMMC – did have a problem.

“My wife and I had our first baby my third year of medical school,” said Thigpen of Jackson. “And that required a lot of adjustments to my schedule in order for me be at home with the new baby.

“Virginia said, ‘Don’t worry about it; we’ll take care of you, and your wife and your baby.’ The help she provided allowed me to spend time with them and not fall behind.”

The students were the reason she stayed so long at her job, said her younger daughter, Christina McAlpin of Madison.

“Every time I visited her, they came in to her office, sometimes to cry on her shoulder. She would introduce me to them as her youngest daughter. And she referred to the students as ‘my babies.’”

Covington scheduled her life around them, East said.

“The short coat and long coat ceremonies were big days for her. And Match Day and graduation day. They were all sacred. She was like proud mom when the students graduated and went off to be big doctors and adults.

“It was her place – the School of Medicine.”

Dr. Mike McMullan was the last person Covington worked for at UMMC. “Miss Virginia is student affairs and has been for the past 25 years,” said McMullan, professor of medicine, division director for cardiology, and associate dean for student affairs.

“She was a surrogate mother for hundreds, probably thousands, of medical students over the years – keeping them straight and loving on them as well.

“We were all sad to see her retire. It breaks my heart that she won’t be spending more time with her husband and her family.”

That time was precious to her, McAlpin said. “She loved being with her siblings, children and grandchildren. Over this past year of her retirement, she especially enjoyed spending time with our daddy.

“In her spare time, she played bingo at the American Legion and loved seeing her friends there and whenever she got her hair done.”

In the years before she retired, the students and the Medical Center tried to show their gratitude.

The 2013 student yearbook, the Medic, carries a dedication that includes this passage: “Something about walking into your office and talking to you for just a few minutes always made me sure that ‘everything was going to be OK’ – and it isn’t easy to convince medical students of that!’”

It was written by the future Dr. Julia Thompson, who addressed it to “Mrs. Virginia.”

Years earlier, the Class of 2006 established the Virginia Covington Award: a cash prize and certificate given to a medical student or resident participating in a medical mission trip.

Six years ago this month, for Covington’s 60th birthday, Clark and the medical students threw her a surprise party with roses, balloons, a cake and about 200 people on hand.

Wearing a birthday hat as she was serenaded, Covington was the center of attention, but she didn’t let it go to her head. Her cake was lit by several points of flame, but the count was far short of 60, which was fine with her.

“I’m glad they didn’t have all the candles,” she said. “Even I don’t have enough hot air to blow that out.”

As usual, no one argued with her.

Visitation for Virginia Covington will be held 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27 at Wright & Ferguson Funeral Home in Flowood, and again on Friday, Jan. 28  at 10 a.m. A funeral service will be held following visitation on Friday at 11 a.m., with a graveside service to follow immediately at Parkway Memorial Cemetery in Ridgeland.

The Office of Student Affairs in the School of Medicine has set up the Virginia Covington School of Medicine Student Fund, which will be used to assist medical students with educational needs, travel, student activities, books, supplies, lab materials and more.

To give, go to this Office of Development site. In the “Designation Dropdown” box, select ‘Virginia Covington School of Medicine Student Fund.”

To send a check instead, please make it payable to the UMMC Fund and designate the Virginia Covington SOM Student Fund in the “FOR” line.

Checks may be mailed to:

University of MS Foundation
Attention: Development Accounting
2500 N. State St.
Jackson, MS 39216