A Life: Ernest "Ernie Covey," 1940 - 2014; ‘He Was a Cat Times Three – 27 Lives’
Ernest "Ernie" Covey with his wife, Marcia, in a 1970s photograph at Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, Vt.
Ernest "Ernie" Covey, with most of his 11 brothers and sisters, in an undated family photograph. Ernest Covey is center, with the prosthetic leg.
Ernest "Ernie" Covey in an undated photograph from Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, Vt.
Bradford, Vt. — It might be a challenge to step out in a family of 12 children, but Ernie Covey always seemed to have a way of doing so — over and over again.
Covey was mechanically competent from the start, learning the fine art of tinkering through careers that included timber harvesting, auto repair and truck driving. Beyond that, the Bradford, Vt., native took to both to dirt track auto racing and constructing dune buggies as recreational pursuits.
Not bad for someone who spent the bulk of his life operating on one good leg – and, later, less.
The accident that cost Covey most of his left foot never slowed him down. Neither did the slew of other setbacks — illnesses, injuries, personal or family tragedies — before his death on March 8 at the age of 73.
“He fought to the end; he was a tough, old bird,” said his daughter, Tonja Russo, of Hebron, Conn. “You know how a cat has nine lives? He was a cat times three – 27 lives.”
More than two decades separate the oldest of Ernest Sr. and Nina Covey’s dozen offspring from the youngest. There was never a time when all were under the roof of the family’s Bradford home at the same time, just as there was seemingly never a moment when young Ernie wasn’t fiddling with something mechanical.
Covey had an innate curiosity about things, how they worked and how he could build or repair them, according to younger brother Burt Covey, of East Corinth.
“We had old junk cars (and) we fixed our own vehicles,” Burt Covey said. “You had to learn, because you couldn’t afford to go hire a mechanic.
“He was kind of working on his own vehicles, and he worked at Peanut Kennedy’s garage in Chelsea as a mechanic. It just kind of came rather easy for him to pick up things. He could figure things out and make ’em work.”
Fittingly, Ernie Covey eventually gravitated toward racing at Bear Ridge Speedway, even if only for a relatively short time. He was born on a couch in his parents’ home on South Road in Bradford on May 4, 1940, within earshot of the dirt racetrack.
As with brothers Richard, Merle, Donnie, Burt and Lyle, Ernie Covey went into the woods at a young age to help with his father’s logging business. Aside from the Chelsea mechanic’s job, Covey would also drive cement and oil trucks, work at a veneer mill, run his own logging business and do carpentry work over the length of his life, each time making full use of his mechanical expertise.
“He worked hard; we all had to, even when we were home,” said sister Lila O’Donnell, of East Corinth. “We had the type of father and mother who made sure we knew how to work.”
An accident on a job at the Rock of Ages granite quarry in Barre, Vt., would set the tone for Covey’s life of comebacks. Covey sustained severe injuries when he was trapped by a 20-ton chunk of rock, both legs pinned. The accident cost him the front half of his left foot; vascular issues related to damage to both legs would dog Covey for much of his adult life, Russo said.
Yet neither the injuries nor the recovery dimmed Covey’s resolve to get back to a point of providing for his wife Marcia, son Mark and daughter Tonja.
“He was a hard worker, a great provider for our family,” Russo said. “He was constantly hurdling the obstacles in his path and didn’t allow them to get him down. He persevered.”
“It was a setback,” Burt Covey added, “but he’d just grit his teeth and went back at things as quick as he could.”
All of the Covey boys were called into the woods at a young age to assist their father with supplying lumber for the local mills. It was in that pursuit that working with — and, when needed, building or repairing — all things mechanical began to appeal to Ernie Covey.
“He used to pull logs with horses; later in life he used a skidder,” Russo said. “He was most at home when he was tinkering in the shop out back in our back yard. Into the wee hours of the morning, if he was working on a racecar for the next night when he’d race, that’s where he found happiness.
“It was easy for him to tinker. He was able to use his hands and arms rather than worry about hobbling around. He was disabled, but he never let that stop him.”
Once on a project, Covey wasn’t satisfied until the job was done.
“He was set in his ways, always was,” noted brother Donnie Covey, of Chateaugay, N.Y. “If he attempted to fix something, he’d stick with it until it got fixed and fixed right. Like one of them race cars, if it wasn’t running right, he’s stick right to it. All night long, he’d work on the cars. If something wasn’t working with it, he would stick with it until it was running right to win with it.”
Racing at the Ridge frequently becomes a family pursuit. Review results over years and a pattern of familiar names occasionally emerges. Ernie Covey’s family was no different, and the time spent at the track made use of his considerable mechanical skills.
Older brother Merle was the first to get the racing bug sometime in the 1970s. Donnie and Ernie soon followed, to drive cars and — in Ernie’s case — tinker with them.
“We used to go to the races all the time and decided to race,” Donnie Covey said. “We drove Fords, the coupes. (The racing) was pretty good, pretty even. Ernie did good, Merle did good, but I didn’t do so well. I didn’t have the courage they had.
“It’s braveness. They’d take more chances than I would, so they did better than I did.”
For Ernie Covey, racing wasn’t so much a competitive pursuit as a social one. While he and his brothers would win an occasional race, none ever left with a track championship.
“He was good, friendly, would help out everybody,” Donnie Covey said. “Back that, it wasn’t so greedy as today; we helped each other. If they won, we’d congratulate them. It was a friendly race, not dog-eat-dog like today.”
Ernie Covey also enjoyed the outdoors, with an affinity for hunting and one other activity that captured his mechanical fascination: Building and riding dune buggies. With old logging roads easily accessible, Covey often led family outings into the woods on what seems routine with today’s all-terrain vehicles.
“We would pretty much go where most four-wheel drives could go,” Burt Covey remembered. “Most of them were made out of old Volkswagens. It would be like an early version of a four-wheeler. … He’d get a bunch together and go on a group ride. We’d stop and have a picnic beside the road, a Sunday outing.”
“He could do anything,” Donnie Covey said. “He built his own racers and stuff like that. He could fix anything: chain saws, go-karts, anything like that.”
In addition to the quarry accident, which happened when he was in his mid-20s, Covey sustained several other serious setbacks only to rally on each occasion.
For one, the fire. The family’s Corinth home went up in flames in 1969. No one was hurt, but the edifice was a complete loss.
“He bought this beautiful old home when I was 3, but the house burned to the ground,” Russo said. “A combustible can exploded near the chimney and caused the fire. It was a complete loss, but he rebuilt it on the same property.”
And he did it himself. “God, yeah,” Russo added. “He had some help, but he was the contractor and did some of the construction.”
The Barre quarry incident could also have slowed Covey down. As if to display a stereotypical streak of Vermont-made stubbornness, Covey took jobs driving cement and oil trucks, using the heel of his amputated foot — later aided by a prosthetic leg — to operate the clutch of the manual-transmission vehicles, just as he did on the racetrack.
Diabetes capitalized on the vascular damage left over from the quarry accident as Covey grew older. He would eventually lose both of his legs at the hip, requiring a wheelchair to get around the former general store in Bradford Center that served as his final residence.
Buying that house helped Covey cope with Marcia’s death in 1990, Russo said. She was “his right-hand man” in some workshop projects, a role Covey recognized once by buying her a welder as an anniversary present.
“It made him a little more readily accessible to get into town,” Russo added. “He would take his wheelchair out and watch the sights.”
And he’d still fight when a fight was required.
“He was probably, in recent history, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s most catastrophic case,” Russo noted. “There was one summer, 10 years ago, when he spent seven weeks in a coma. He’d had some vascular surgery that went badly and he landed in a coma. I had a seven-week vigil. I was making plans, and he came out of it. It seemed like he had nine lives.
“He was constantly recovering. It was part of his will. He was a tough Vermont man.”
Covey’s obituary notes his ownership of the nickname “Palooka,” as in Joe Palooka, a scrapper to the end.
“He was just a strong-willed person,” O’Donnell said. “You have to do what you have to do.”
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.