When Fred Coverdale first interviewed for a job in the Bayport-Blue Point school district in 1961, he was hired over the phone. When he showed up for his first day of work as the school district's first African-American teacher, his son, John Coverdale, said, "I'm sure many people were surprised."
They were so surprised, his hiring required a 3-2 vote of the school board to determine the district "was ready" to hire a black teacher. The deciding vote was cast by the late John Foley, then the board chairman, who later became a longtime Suffolk legislator.
Coverdale, who spent three decades as a beloved Bayport teacher, coach, administrator and prominent community leader, died Monday at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola. He was 76.
"He was an inspiration and role model for thousands and thousands of kids in Bayport and Blue Point," said Thomas Cavanaugh, a former student and longtime friend. "On the field or in the classroom, coach was the first person to give you a pat on the back, but he was also the first one to give a nudge to keep you in line as well."
Coverdale, he added, also helped create the Bayport Foundation, which helps the poor: "He was always a leader to help good causes and went out of his way to be a guiding light for everyone."
Coverdale started as a social studies teacher, served as both varsity football and basketball coach, and later became a high school dean, assistant principal, principal and assistant to the superintendent. The year he retired, his son became a member of the school board that years earlier had hired him.
After retiring in 1990, Coverdale spent 17 years teaching college at Stony Brook University and Suffolk County Community College and held interim administrative jobs in districts including Malverne, Roosevelt and Bridgehampton, where he spent five years, two as superintendent.
For Coverdale, who was once scouted by both pro football and baseball, his son said one of his proudest moments was being inducted into the district's sports hall of fame in 2009.
"He was a rare combination of toughness and compassion. He was a strict disciplinarian, but kids, especially the troubled ones, knew he cared about them," said former chief deputy county executive James Morgo, who once taught with Coverdale.
"He didn't have to say a word, all he had to do was stand there in the hall," said Marty Immel, a former police officer who was the high school's first security officer and still works there. "The kids respected him and always said he was fair."
Born in Milford, Del., Coverdale was one of seven children. He graduated from Jason High School in Milford, where he was a multisport standout. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, joining the 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper and served three years.
On his return, he entered Temple University, then transferred after a year to Delaware State University, where he was quarterback of the football team and a baseball pitcher. It was in college, where Coverdale met Chestene, his wife of 53 years.
"My mother said she was first drawn by the way he played football, but she couldn't tell what he looked like with his helmet on," his son said.
During his career, Coverdale later earned two master's degrees, in sociology and education.
John Coverdale said his father later laughed at the circumstances of his hiring, moved into the community and remained with the school district, despite recruiting overtures from other districts. "I'm not going say there were never difficulties . . . but I never heard him complain," said his son. "And I was always struck by how happy he was to go work every day, how proud he was to be an educator and how strongly he felt about our community."
Survivors also include daughter Terri of Patchogue; brothers Norman and Reggie, both of Milford; sisters Teresa Johnson and Eleanor Hamm of Milford, and Betty Ann of Atlanta.
The wake will be held Wednesday from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. at Raynor and D'Andrea Funeral Home in West Sayville. A service is planned for Thursday at 10:30 a.m. at the funeral home and burial will follow at Calverton National Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Wounded Veteran Initiative Canine Companions for Independence, 286 Middle Island Rd., Medford, NY 11763.