By Rhiannon Rashidi
HARLEM, New York– On November 3, The City College of New York Alumni Association transformed the Great Hall into a gala venue fit for the Townsend Harris Medal Awardees that gathered there to celebrate. Francee Covington, a woman known to the world for news writing, directing, producing, and her lifelong career as a social justice advocate, was among the awardees. As she walked into the event arm in arm with her son, many people redirected themselves as she passed to congratulate her and shake her hand.
The people that attended the gala know her as the world does, as a former field producer for WCBS, the head of Francee Covington Productions, and a three time Emmy Award nominee. But, her career inspired people long before her name appeared in the credits of public programming. To members of the City College community, Francee Covington is a face. She is a face that led students through the 1969 uprising on City College’s Campus. She is a face that started The Paper, which continues to publish the work of the City College student body 50 years later. And she is a face that current students can see themselves reflected in, if they, like her, are willing to fight like hell for the world they want to build.
“She has inspired me for my entire life,” Rhonda, a lifelong friend of Covington’s, said as her Townsend Harris medal was announced. “I have known her since I was one, and she has always been the most remarkable woman.”
Covington graduated from City College in 1970 and went on to leave many marks on the news world. She was one of the first television producers to cover the San Francisco AIDS epidemic in depth, she has received countless awards for her reporting and programming, and her work has taken her to every continent except Antarctica. But, despite how much she has accomplished since graduating from City College, she speaks with incredible passion about what she accomplished within its walls. When speaking with her, it is clear that The Paper she helped found will always be a source of pride.
“We were not rigid in our roles because our schedules changed, but what didn’t ever change was our commitment to getting The Paper out,” Covington said. “We did not miss a week,” she added with a smile.
Before The Paper, there was Tech News, a student newspaper that catered to the interests of people in the Engineering department. Paul Simms, a writer for Tech News, thought this paper could be more, and worked with Louis Rivera and Francee Covington to change its mission.
“Even though the mastheads said Tech News, it was The Paper before it officially changed names,” Covington said in a 2015 interview. “We voted the staff of Tech News out and we voted ourselves in.”
Covington, Rivera, and Simms joined forces at a critical period of social and political upheaval, which greatly influenced their vision for The Paper. Emerging amidst the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, The Paper sought to cover issues not typically reported by traditional college newspapers, and their uniquely diverse staff gave the publication an essential perspective that was often underrepresented in news media.
“The founders were all people of color,” Covington reflected. “It was our mission to be a beacon of light for the unheard, and I’m not just using those words because they are The Paper’s motto.” “It was sort of social justice before that term became popular,” Albert De Leon, Editor in Chief of The Paper in 1972, said about its mission.
De Leon worked with Rivera, after Covington and Simms graduated, on The Paper at the start of the 1970s. He laughs now about how he got involved in the first place. “After class, some students had a copy of The Paper, and they said ‘who are these arrogant people naming their newspaper ‘The Paper,’” De Leon shared. “My reaction was, oh, I need to go and see them.”
And he did. In 1971, he and Joudon Ford became co-Editorial Directors, and in 1972 he became the sole Editor in Chief. De Leon recalls his time on the paper fondly and remains proud of the work that his staff produced. “It was consuming because we all wanted [The Paper] to be the best it could be,” he said.
The staff were publishing on a weekly basis, turning out articles that covered news at the local, national, and international scales. After suggesting that publishing so frequently must have been a lot of pressure on staff, who were all also students, De Leon subtly chuckled into the phone. “It was a lot of fun,” he said. Then the phone line silenced for a moment. “But we weren’t playing around,” he continued.
“We were always debating,” Covington recalled about her time in The Paper’s newsroom. “But there were never any cliques or real fighting. We were all there for the same reason and, besides having respect for each other, we also enjoyed each other’s company.”
And this sentiment appears to be true even 50 years later.
At the Townsend Harris Medalist gala, Francee Covington and Albert De Leon smiled and laughed as they looked to the right and left of the lavender centerpiece that partially blocked their vision of one another. They talked with the ease and enthusiasm of two people whose lives unfolded along different paths, but were brought together by a shared passion. “Albert and I didn’t meet until many years after we both worked on The Paper,” Covington recalled. “The only reason I know him is because he is very proactive. He loves The Paper and he loves the college.”
“Years ago, Albert organized a paper reunion,” Covington continued. “I got an email from [Albert], some guy I’d never heard of before, and I ended up going to New York for The Paper reunion. Louis and Paul were there as well. That was probably the first time we had been on campus all together since graduation.”
Francee Covington expressed many sentimental comments about her time working in The Paper’s newsroom, but spoke most tenderly about her relationships with its co-founders. “Louis and Paul and I were very close, and we worked together very well. They were my brothers and I was their sister,” Covington reflected. “We were friends for life.” Sadly, Louis Rivera and Paul Simms passed away this decade. But they live on through the people they touched, and the impressive work they accomplished both during their time on The Paper and in their post-graduate careers.
“Great universities are not judged by their incoming students, they are judged by their graduates,” Covington said in an interview. And The Paper’s current staff feel this is true as they look to the legacy of its graduates, whose work was inspiring both within and beyond City College’s walls.
Thunderous applause erupted from the ballroom full of guests after Francee Covinton’s acceptance video was projected. The excitement in the room was for her, and the gratitude she felt in that moment was apparent to everyone. “I was in disbelief when I received the email [about the Townsend Harris Medal],” Covington said. “I looked at the screen and said ‘really!?”
“It felt wonderful to be acknowledged,” she added. “I feel so fortunate that I am here [at the gala], and that I am here, in this life, that in some ways began at City College.”
Pictured (left to right): Francee Covington, Albert De Leon, and Jane Tillman Irving (an alumni of Tech News) take a photo together at the Alumni Association gala.