He put the nation first

Gen. Colin Powell speaks to Worcester Technical High School students at the Hanover Theater for the Performing Arts on March 27, 2014. Tribune News Service

Our history books are filled with accounts of politicians hell bent on satisfying their own ruthless ambitions, often to the nation’s detriment.

But these volumes also contain the inspiring stories of individuals truly committed to public service. They saw our country through difficult times and helped create a better society. They may not have held the highest-profile offices, but they used their skills to ensure that we prospered.

Colin Powell was one such American. He continually pursued an essential mission: Preserve the freedoms of the United States by keeping it safe. He was the first black American to serve as national security adviser (1987 to 1989), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989 to 1993) and U.S. secretary of state (2001 to 2005).

Powell died Monday at the age of 84 from complications resulting from COVID-19. While fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, he had various health problems preventing him from recovering.

He had multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that suppressed his immune system. He also had Parkinson’s disease.

Powell had a remarkable 35-year career in the military — eventually serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Pentagon. He joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while attending The City College of New York in the 1950s.

Upon graduation, he received a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1958. He served two tours in Vietnam, one from 1962 to 1963 and the other from 1968 to 1971.

In 1989, Powell rose to the rank of four-star general in the Army. He inspired other career military officers through his devotion to service.

Maj. Gen. Milford H. Beagle Jr., commander of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, posted this comment Monday morning on Twitter upon learning of Powell’s death: “An iconic leader gone from our ranks. RIP sir, you climbed a great climb to glory.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired four-star Army general who previously served as commander of Fort Drum, lauded Powell as a valuable resource and trusted friend. The first black American to serve as secretary of defense, Austin said this Monday:

“The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed. Alma lost a great husband and the family lost a tremendous father. And I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He had been my mentor for a number of years. He always made time for me, and I could always go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel. We will certainly miss him. I feel as if I have a hole in my heart just learning of this just recently.”

After Powell retired from the Army in 1993, he was periodically touted as a potential presidential contender.

But he never sought the office, finding other ways to continue serving our nation.

He reflected the “nation before party” mindset. Powell bucked a trend among prominent black Americans by becoming a Republican in 1995. But when he observed things in the Republican Party that concerned him, he expressed an independent voice.

Powell endorsed, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden for president. He left the Republican Party earlier this year, disturbed by the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and how GOP leaders continued to support Donald Trump’s behavior.

While such actions make headlines, Powell’s real legacy will be with how he positively influenced generations of leaders.

He maintained close ties to his alma mater by founding the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service at The City College of New York in 1997. In 2013, this institution merged with the college’s Division of Social Sciences to form the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.

On Monday, one school official reflected on how Powell helped shape the lives of their students.

“We mourn the loss of Gen. Colin Powell. No words seem adequate at this moment. This school is his. He was our leader and our friend. His pride in this place gave all of us strength, and we are heartbroken,” Andrew Rich, the Richard J. Henley and Susan L. Davis dean of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, wrote on the college’s website. “Gen. Powell will be remembered as a man of extraordinary accomplishment: a trailblazer, a role model and an inspiration. And he was a proud son of City College, a person from humble origins who never forgot where he started. The son of Jamaican immigrants, born in Harlem and raised in the South Bronx, when it came to college, it was CCNY or nowhere, as he often reminded us. He found ROTC here, and he discovered his purpose and direction. He went on to greatness, but he never left this college behind.

“The Colin Powell School reflects his vision, his passion and his never-ending belief in the essential nature of this place. Gen. Powell committed himself to every student who walked through our doors. He loved this place and loved meeting every one of them. He would show up early to meetings on campus so that he could stand in front of Shepard Hall and meet students as they walked by. He’d hear their stories and tell them his own. He would encourage them to work hard and pursue their dreams. He always reminded them — and all of us — that ‘they’re just like I was’ some 65 years ago now.

“Gen. Powell never missed a Colin Powell School graduation, and he took the time to shake the hand of every student earning a degree. It’s hard to imagine graduation without him. But this school remains his, and every graduate of the Colin Powell School is a part of his legacy. He was proud of this place, and we are even prouder to have had him as our leader.”

While we grieve the loss of an extraordinary American statesman, we count ourselves blessed to have had Powell in our midst. Let’s make good use of the lessons he taught us about serving our nation with honor.

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