When Donald Covington was a kid, he and his younger brother, Duncan, spent their summer days putting on backyard circuses at their Baltimore home. The devilish duo performed daring feats on bicyclesand such, recruiting neighborhood kids to join in the fun.
Then each year, in late November, the Shrine Circus, produced by the Polack Bros. Circus, would set up shop in an old armory for a week, featuring top acts from all over the world. Covington would tag along with his father, who volunteered as an usher. "I remember sitting in the bleachers and hearing the echoing sounds of the animals, the people, the band, and the smells of cotton candy and popcorn. For me, it was the most exciting event of the year," he recalls.
Some things cling to you. In 1995, after 30 years in the Navy, Covington took mandatory retirement. And the Navy captain, who once flew from the decks of carriers during the Vietnam War, ran away with the circus. The nonprofit, old-fashioned, one-ring Big Apple Circus, to be precise, where he is company manager for the 170-member traveling troupe and staff.
Covington shuttles from Boston to Atlanta with stops in 10 cities or more, staying on the road for 45 weeks a year. His trailer-home partner on the road is the circus wardrobe supervisor—his wife of 36 years, Janice, whom he met when she was a Navy nurse. The couple's three children are grown.
Retiring at 50, Covington could have worked for a defense contractor or flown for an airline. But the circus had never been far from his heart. Throughout his naval career, he attended circuses around the world and wrote reviews for Circus Report, a trade publication. So when he broached the idea of working for a circus, his family was supportive. "They knew the circus was important to me," Covington, 62, says, "and although no one shared my passion, they understood."
He talked to people he knew in the circus world, from Ringling Bros. to Big Apple. They gave him a feel for the pros and cons. And although he had no specific job in mind, he sent off his queries based on his military skill set—administration and management (he had commanded squadrons of 250 people or more), crisis management, the ability to react to unusual situations, and an understanding of a life of constant travel.
"When you think about it, the military and the circus are probably closer than most people think," Covington says. "It's a small group working very hard to achieve a goal. You have lots of specialists, and each is critical to what's going on. You also have the frustrations of life on the road and constantly adjusting to keep things going."
Big Apple's cofounders, Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, first hired him as a purchasing manager in charge of buying everything from feed for the horses to replacement tires for the trucks. And financially, with full military retirement pay and benefits, he could afford to accept a job paying about half of his annual military salary. Climbing the ladder wasn't a concern, either. "The advantage to starting over in my situation was I had no pressing requirement to move up and become a director of something," Covington says. "I am very pleased to be a part of what goes on and do whatever I can to make things work, and that's a nice place to be."
On a recent stop at New York City's Lincoln Center, where the circus will reside through mid-January, Covington's cramped office trailer is adjacent to Big Apple's modest-size royal blue big top. Inside, there's a 42-foot sawdust ring, surrounded by 1,700 seats, all within 50 feet of the action, creating an intimate setting for this classical circus.
"I can hear the music of the band," Covington says, "and walk over to watch the kids as they come into the tent and get the first look at therigging, the seats, and the ring. At that moment, they simply say, 'Wow!' For me, that's heaven." In a flash, he's 10 years old again—and the circus is in town.