John Covert sees the renovation of the institutional kitchen at the University of Mississippi’s South Oxford Campus as his “field of dreams.”
The retired food service industry owner-manager made a $300,000 gift to revitalize the kitchen for the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management in the School of Applied Sciences. Once completed, the facility will open as a cafeteria and as a teaching and research resource.
“You know the saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Let’s put together the resources and the vision (School of Applied Sciences Dean) Peter Grandjean has for this facility to become a magnet for more students, faculty and community members,” said Covert, a resident of Oxford, Mississippi.
Grandjean said when he heard Covert’s story for the first time, he realized his passion for hospitality and the food service industry.
“John’s life experiences, his knowledge and energy all lined up perfectly with our vision for a multifunction, commercial kitchen to serve as a hospitality innovation center,” the dean said. “We are deeply grateful for John Covert and the Covert Family Fund for Excellence in Nutrition and Hospitality Management.
“This generous gift enables us to begin the planning and build out of world-class facilities that will provide an unmatched educational experience for our students. This opens opportunities we’ve never had before to engage our community and enhance workforce and economic development,” Grandjean said.
The South Oxford Campus is the name of the former Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi facility, where the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management is now located.
“Nutrition and hospitality management were my career,” said Covert. “The food service industry made it possible for me to have the resources to make this gift, so I thought this project was the perfect place for it to rest.
“The School of Applied Sciences is really involved in shaping the future of hospitality management in the state and region — and hopefully in the nation. The vision, energy and enthusiasm of Dean Grandjean touched me, and the School of Applied Sciences is where my daughter, Lauren, earned an exercise science degree. There are so many opportunities in applied sciences; there’s real diversity there that I really like.”
The Nutrition and Hospitality Management Department offers students experiences through collaborations with the Center for Health and Sport Performance and the Institute of Child Nutrition; various StudyUSA and Study Abroad courses; and multidimensional coursework spanning human development, consumer economics and business applications.
Selected research topics addressed by Nutrition and Hospitality Management faculty and students include child nutrition, weight control, sports nutrition, nutrition epidemiology, food environment, food assistance programs, health and welfare, service management, hospitality finance, hospitality marketing and food tourism. UM’s program prepares students to be competitive in academic and professional markets.
“When I walked into the kitchen, it brought back everything I had done — food service for health care, business and industry, schools, senior feeding and elderly nutrition,” Covert said. “My hope is this kitchen can be the foundation used to promote the mission of the school: ‘We learn, lead and serve to improve the health and well-being of Mississippi, our nation and world.’
“There are broad groups of people who can benefit from this kitchen — from those at the university to Oxford and Lafayette County. As a service kitchen, it could even assist entrepreneurs with food-related cottage industries,” Covert said.
Nikki Neely Davis, executive director of development, expressed appreciation for Covert’s gift.
“John Covert is investing in a vision we have for this academic department to provide exceptional learning and service opportunities for our students, faculty, staff and community,” she said. “His gift will be transformational. We thank him for his belief in Dean Grandjean’s vision and plans and hope others will join him to expand the excellent opportunities this new space will allow us to provide.”
Covert’s gift is directed to Now & Ever: The Campaign for Ole Miss, an initiative to raise $1.5 billion to strengthen the university for generations to come.
The four years Covert was an Ole Miss student, he was a member of Delta Psi fraternity, worked in the Faulkner Collection at the J.D. Williams Library and was mentored by Franklin Moak, dean of the Division of Student Personnel. After graduating in 1972 with a double major in English and biology, Covert received a draft notice for the ongoing Vietnam War. He enlisted with the U.S. Air Force, was chosen for officer training school and married later that year.
Covert became a member of a Minuteman Missile Combat Crew in North Dakota. There, the military paid for his tuition at the University of North Dakota, allowing him to earn an MBA. He was named a first lieutenant and then captain before resigning his commission.
The Meridian, Mississippi, native moved to Jackson, where he was a trust banker for five years. He became friends with client Bill Hogg, who founded Valley Food Service, a regional company covering 20 states. Hogg convinced him to join the company in 1985, and in 2000, Covert and six others purchased 49% of the company. In 2005, they bought the other 51%.
In 2012, the group sold Valley to a national conglomerate, and it was then purchased by the French company Elior. Covert headed up two of the company’s five divisions and spent his 28-year career in sales, operations and executive roles.
During this time, Covert had purchased a second home in Oxford where he and his partner, T.J. Bell, a graduate of the Ole Miss School of Education, spent a lot of time. They decided to move to Oxford full time in 2016. Covert’s family includes daughter, Lauren, married to Scott Seale, also an Ole Miss graduate, and their two children. Covert’s son, Todd, has three children.
Covert, a sports fan, also has gifted the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation with $125,000.
Denson Hollis, associate athletics director of development and chief development officer, expressed gratitude for Covert’s gift, which was given as part of the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation’s ongoing $350 million CHAMPIONS. NOW. capital campaign.
“John recognizes that his gift along with others will be the difference-maker that vaults Ole Miss to the top tier of athletics departments nationwide, giving our student-athletes the facilities and programs they need to win championships,” Hollis said. “With gifts like John’s, we are able to strengthen many facets of our athletics offerings and build a level of excellence comparable to or better than that of our peer institutions.
“We are extremely grateful for John’s support and his desire to see our student-athletes compete at the level they deserve,” he said.
To make a gift to the Covert Family Fund for Excellence in Nutrition and Hospitality Management, send a check to the University of Mississippi Foundation, with the name of the fund written in the memo line, to 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655 or online at https://www.umfoundation.com/makeagift.
For more information on supporting the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management or the School of Applied Sciences, contact Nikki Neely Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 662-915-6678.
To learn more about the CHAMPIONS. NOW. capital campaign, contact Denson Hollis at email@example.com or 662-915-8455.
By Tina H. Hahn/UM Development