By Forrest Preece
Did I get a sense of history being present when I was interviewing Nicole Covert in her home? Well, let’s just say that the six-seat dining table where I flopped down my yellow legal pad and recorder was the one her grandfather and grandmother, President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson, had in their home “The Elms” in Washington, D.C. while he was Vice President. Her mother Luci probably ate many a meal at that table. Later, she took me for a quick tour of the house and showed me photos of presidents and their families, some with her in them, all signed by the chief executives in the photos. Nicole has inherited and honed her family’s gift of presence and she has a talent for flashing a big smile and making a newly introduced person feel at ease. What’s more, they have a boisterous golden retriever puppy named Woodrow who was only too glad to bound up and welcome me into the house.
Thinking back on her childhood, Nicole remembers riding around West Austin, hanging out at Westwood Country Club and Holiday House with her friends like Kimberley Curtis Ezell, Stacey Oliver, Suzanne Kocurek Rose, Kristin Kidd Fason, Surrenden Angly Gillespie, and Ashley Cotten Putman. As the oldest girl in the family, Nicole took care of her younger sisters Rebekah and Claudia and still feels very close to them and her brother Lyndon. (Yes, all of her siblings got family names and she didn’t.) Almost every weekend, she and her three siblings would go to the Johnson Ranch and have a wonderful time. “We met some of the great people of the world there,” Nicole says. They also got to go on trips around the globe that shaped her perspective on life. But West Austin has always been the center of her world. In fact, the beautiful home where she and her husband Brent live (which she calls a “treehouse” because it has a sweeping view of Lake Austin), is only about a half mile from where she grew up. Brent is virtually an Austin native – he moved to town when he was two years old and he and Nicole met each other when she was in the second grade and he was two grades ahead of her. In high school, they became sweethearts and now they have been married for 24 years. For the record, he is not part of the car dealership Covert family, though many members of that clan are friends of theirs. “I wish I had a nickel for every time we’ve been asked that question,” Nicole says with a chuckle.
Nicole was an athlete in high school – a point guard on the Austin High basketball team and a setter on their volleyball team. She “reluctantly” spent her sophomore year at an all-girls school in Toronto after her parents Luci and Pat Nugent divorced, then she returned and enrolled at Westlake for her junior and senior years, where she was a key member of the volleyball team. (By the way, she wound up liking the school in Canada.) Athletics are still important to her and her family. Brent is an athlete and coach himself and their children Claudia and John have been involved in sports from their early days. Being one of four kids, she already knew plenty about competition and athletics took it to another level. “I still carry those lessons with me,” Nicole says.
Early on, she was taught that “to whom much is given, much is required” and she had it stressed to her that being a volunteer and giving back to the community was important. In fact, family lore has it that Nicole attended her first non-profit meeting in a basket carried by her mother to a conference. She says in that era, if you wanted her mother, you got the kids, too; that is just the way she traveled. In fact, she and her brother Lyndon helped dedicate the “new” Seton Hospital back in 1974, with Gene Attal. When she was at UT, Nicole volunteered at Brackenridge and then she became involved with the Children’s Hospital. Back then, it was one floor at Brackenridge. Now, she is on the board of the Dell Children’s Medical Center, the Ann Richards Foundation board, the Seton Development Board and at times, she has been “on and off” The UT College of Education Advisory Council. When her son and daughter were attending Trinity Episcopal School, she was on that board as well. “My grandmother told us that if you find a passion, stick with it.” She also applies the principle of “time, talent and treasure” to volunteer and philanthropic efforts. In other words, if a person is at a point in life when they are lacking treasure, then they should concentrate on donating time and their talent.
Speaking of getting along with other people, Nicole thinks back to when her grandfather was in office and the top politicians lived in Washington, rather than spending so much time being in campaign mode. When the workday was over, the first couple would come home and have dinner with their Republican colleagues. Nicole says that she doesn’t have the sense that these relationships are being developed in today’s D.C. Her family was very close to the Bushes, the Carters and the Fords. In fact, when President Nixon had assumed office and her grandfather was boarding the official plane to fly back to Texas, someone noticed George H.W. Bush in the crowd and asked him why he was not attending one of the inauguration parties instead of being there at the airfield. He replied that he was “watching his president go home.”
Indeed, the families are still close and their presidential libraries work together on programs. As an example, she pointed to the Presidential Leadership Scholarship Program which is now in its third year and is a collaboration among the Clinton Library, the libraries of both Bushes and the LBJ Library. Now in its third year, the program is graduating outstanding people who have established careers in the public or private realms and are looking to “broaden their leadership skills across a variety of sectors.” Nicole feels that her grandparents were ahead of their time with their vision for his library and it has served as a model for others that followed. The LBJ School is a win-win for its scholars, the nation and for the Austin community, she says.
Of course, her grandmother was well-known for her beautification efforts. When Nicole was first married and the Johnson Wildflower Center was still way out East 19th Street, she joined with Kimberley Curtis Ezell and Molly Sherman to found a young associates group as a way to involve more people and to spread the word about its mission. The center is more than pretty wildflowers, Nicole points out; it has an educational component as well. Now, of course, the center’s buildings and grounds are “unbelievable.” The architecture is beautiful and people have weddings, conferences, and parties of all types there. One of Mrs. Johnson’s main goals was to see a merger between the center and the University of Texas, which was only natural, since those were her two biggest loves. Thanks to her, that combining of institutional efforts happened and all of Texas benefits from it.
Nicole’s children were close to her grandmother and she was very involved with their lives. In Mrs. Johnson’s waning years, when her vision was failing, Nicole’s children would read to her from their books. John, who was eight at the time, would read her sports stories, which Nicole says probably weren’t her favorite, and Claudia liked to read princess tales to her. When Mrs. Johnson died, Claudia and her cousins were at Camp Mystic and Nicole had to make the dreaded phone call to them. John was with Nicole and Brent. The camp directors, Dick and Tweety Eastland, did a superb job of telling them immediately, so that they would not hear about her passing through the news media. Nicole warned her kids that they would be onstage for a week-long ordeal and they responded beautifully, acting in a proper manner. After the funeral was over and the media had left, the girls had gone down to visit the grave with Luci. John was with Nicole in the ranch house. At first, he demurred from going, then after a bit, he agreed and they set out for the gravesite. Along the way, Nicole asked he would like to pick a wildflower for his great-grandmother, so he did. When they arrived, he turned and said, “You know, I’m going to miss every single thing about her.” As Nicole says, for a ten-year-old boy to say that about a 94-year-old woman was very touching.
Nicole has had a wonderful life and she is looking forward to more good times. But it hasn’t all been roses. Twenty-one years ago, she lost her first child at six months into her term. She says that she grew up in a hurry after that and realized that her life was not perfect. Edith Royal was a huge help in getting her through that tough time. “You know, she’s had a lot of tragedy in her life, too. She convinced me that bad things happen to really good people. Then she said, ‘Let’s get up, get dressed, and get going.’” Together they took a workout class at Barton Creek and that made all the difference for Nicole. “Edith got me back on track.”
These days, Nicole and Brent are adjusting to being empty nesters. Claudia is a freshman at USC majoring in communication and John is a sophomore at UT majoring in government. “We’re finding out what it’s like to not have children in the house. It’s a new chapter in our lives.”
Nicole’s adventure in selling boys’ clothes.
During her days at UT, where she was a Kappa Kappa Gamma and an education major, Nicole did babysitting to earn money for things she wanted to do. Two of her best customers were Reuna Campbell and Lise Hudson, wives of football stars Earl Campbell and Jim Hudson. The three ladies became friends and they went on to found Boy O Boy, a clothing store for (obviously) boys. It was located on Far West Boulevard and they had all types of clothing – from suits and dress shirts for cotillion wear to shorts, T-shirts and shoes. “We had fun running it for ten years,” Nicole says.