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A son keeps a secret so that VP Joe Biden can say goodbye to a friend in Syracuse

Syracuse, N.Y. — Pat Covino had a huge secret to keep.

If he let it slip, it would not only ruin the vice president of the United States’ plans for an under-the-radar trip to Syracuse on Tuesday.

It would mean Joe Biden wouldn’t get a chance to say good-bye, in person, to one of his closest friends, John Covino.

Covino, 69, of Manlius, died March 7 while golfing in Florida. By noon that day, his son, Pat, called a special phone number to get through to Biden. Within three hours, the vice president called back.

“Patrick, I just can’t believe it,” Biden told Pat Covino of the unexpected news.

As days passed and funeral plans were made, Pat Covino kept the secret.

Tuesday morning, Pat Covino watched one of his father’s oldest friends arrive at the Thomas J. Pirro Jr. Funeral Home in Salina in a long motorcade filled with New York State troopers, black sedans and an ambulance. The vice president emerged with his son, Delaware Attorney General Joseph “Beau” Biden, and went straight for Pat and gave him a hug.

“He told me, ‘Your dad was a loyal friend of mine,’” Pat Covino said after the service. “I was glad he was able to come and pay his respects.”

Covino’s funeral mass was at St. Daniel’s Church in Lyncourt and he was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Dewitt. In addition to Pat, he was survived by another son, John D. Jr.; his two grandsons, Joseph Michael and Paul Benedict; his mother, Marguerite (Plony) Covino; his sister, Laurel; his brother, Martin; and several nieces and nephews.

Covino and Biden met in 1965 on their second day of law school at Syracuse University. Over the decades, they kept their friendship through marriages and losses, children and grandchildren.

In 1966, Covino went to Biden’s first wedding to the former Neilia Hunter in Skaneateles. He consoled a grieving Biden six years later, when Neilia and the Bidens’ daughter died after a car accident. Covino said in a 2009 interview that he was among the confidants who talked Biden out of ending his political career at that time.

By the 1990s, John Covino was regularly sharing pizza and spaghetti at Dominick’s with Beau, then a law student at Syracuse.

Covino, a 1961 graduate of Manlius Pebble Hill, a 1965 graduate of American International College, and a 1968 SU College of Law, stayed in Manlius, stayed out of politics and practiced real estate law for 40 years.

But when it came time for the 2009 inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama and Biden, Biden made sure his old friend was there, sitting just behind singer Smokey Robinson and about 20 seats away from Sean Combs, Beyonce and Jay-Z.

“I know it was one of the highlights of his life,” Pat Covino said.

When Covino got the invitation, he was in Florida and didn’t have a suit in his closet. Dominick “Dick” Falcone, a Syracuse insurance agent and friend who also lives in Florida, drove one down from Central New York. After the inauguration, Covino invited his friends over to see the pictures.

Three years ago, Covino followed his long-time friends from the Lake Shore Yacht and Country Club, in Cicero, to winter at their snowbird course, the Eastpointe Country Club, near Jupiter, Florida.

Falcone had golfed with Covino on the two days before he died. On March 7, Falcone, who’d stayed home, got a call that Covino had fallen ill on the course. On the second hole, Covino told another friend that he felt light-headed and asked for some sugar. The friend asked if Covino was sick and he said, “I’m in good shape.”

Those were his last words.

Back in Manlius, Covino had lived for his two grandsons. Once a taciturn and imposing man – Biden remembers Covino’s first words accusing him of looking too “preppy,” a slight-of-hand insult that helped win Biden over – Covino’s grandsons made him young again. He once showed up at Pat Covino’s house armed with two full water guns unannounced and chased the boys through the yard. He would not give them mercy, or share the sprayers, his son remembered through tears.

Biden cried, too, during his eulogy. “My name is Joe Biden,” he told the gathering of about two dozen relatives and friends, most of whom were surprised to see him there. “I was John’s friend.”

Biden talked about exploits and of Covino’s searing honesty about the vice president’s driving, among other topics. Mostly, though, the vice president spoke in reverence about a friendship that had lasted a lifetime, saying Covino ranked in the top three of friends he’d ever trusted.

“John was always there for me, never asking for anything at all. John was my friend, my confidant, my defender, and a surrogate father to my sons. He was a source of my confidence and one of the reasons I am vice president,” Biden said in a statement to The Post-Standard. “John was larger than life. When you were with him, you knew you could win. His passion, optimism, and certitude were contagious. He never gave up on life, up to the moment of his death. He was family; he was my friend; and I will miss him.”

Covino’s friends said Tuesday he liked to brag about his friendship with Biden in the fun way that old friends tease each other. He would say that he wished they could see each other more often, that he knew the vice president was busy. He never expected the kind of treatment Biden showed to him.

“On special occasions, his inauguration, his wedding and, of course, John’s funeral, Joe Biden was with him,” Falcone said. “That’s a wonderful thing. John’s up there somewhere looking down and saying, ‘Hey Joe, thanks for remembering me.’”

Biden left Syracuse with memories of his own. Covino was a pack rat, his son said, and he’d saved letters and photos of his friendship with Biden, especially of their times together during and right after law school. Pat had found some of those papers among his father’s things in recent days, and he handed them over to the vice president.

The Covino family was left with the vice president’s love for his friend and the poet William Butler Yeats.

“Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,” the vice president said, his voice cracking and changing the famous quote just slightly. “And say my glory was I had such a friend.”