By Richard Szczepanowski
WASHINGTON — Colin Powell once visited a Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Washington to encourage students there to appreciate the Catholic education they are receiving, to dream big and to work hard to achieve those dreams.
“Many of you may be the first person in your family to attend college,” Powell told students during a Feb. 10, 2014, visit to Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland. “You are in a position to achieve and to change the history of your family. Never give up, never quit and never think there is ever a better alternative to a good education.”
Powell, who was the nation’s first Black secretary of state, as well as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and national security adviser, died early Oct. 18 of complications from COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, where he was being treated for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. He was 84.
He was fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but doctors said his myeloma compromised his immune system. He also had early stage Parkinson’s disease.
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” his family said in announcing his death in a post on Facebook. “We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment.”
Powell “embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat,” President Joe Biden said in an Oct. 18 statement released by the White House. “He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all. … Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else — in uniform and out — and it earned him the universal respect of the American people.”
Calling Powell a “patriot of unmatched honor and dignity,” Biden ordered the flags at the White House and federal buildings be flown at half-staff until Oct. 22 in his honor.
When he met with Don Bosco Cristo Rey students in 2014, Powell reminded them that “you must do your part in making this a better country, and that starts with getting a good education.”
“Don’t let down those who believe in you. The teachers here give you their experience, their wisdom, their love — do not let them down,” he said. “You should be grateful you have a school like this that prepares you for life. Make sure you treasure the education you’re getting here.”
He also told the students that he worked his way through college by working at a Coca-Cola factory in New York.
“Do you know what it is like to mop a floor after a case of soda has exploded?” he asked the students. “I mopped floors, and I learned two things — how to mop a floor, and the fact that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life mopping floors.”
The son of Jamaican immigrants who was raised in the rough “Fort Apache” section of the Bronx, a borough of New York City, Powell served two tours of duty in Vietnam and went on to become secretary of state under President George W. Bush.
In 2003, as secretary of state, Powell had a private audience with St. John Paul II at the Vatican.
He also served as national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton. He was the first African American to be named chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
“When I was your age, if anyone said what I’d do (in the future), I’d say to them, ‘You’re crazy,'” Powell told the Don Bosco Cristo Rey students. “I was a Black kid in the time of segregation, the time of Jim Crow, the time of discrimination.”
He said that his parents encouraged him to get a good education.
“My grades weren’t great, but my parents would not let me quit. I had a large extended family and they had expectations for me and dreams for me,” he said. “You carry the dreams and expectations of your parents and loved ones, do not let them down and do not let yourself down.”
Powell also encouraged the students to “do the best you can every day.”
“The satisfaction I found in my career was not becoming a general, but by knowing I was doing the best I could,” he said, adding that his military career taught him “a sense of discipline, an understanding that you have to meet the standards and ethic of hard work.”
Noting that many of the students at Cristo Rey also were from immigrant families, Powell told them to “master the English language and then you can get a great education.” He also urged them to love this country.
“Never sell this country short. This is a remarkable place,” he said. He told the students that he was raised in a neighborhood with large ethnic communities, including Jewish, Black and Puerto Rican residents.
“I got to know many of the great cultures in our country,” he said. “We have to appreciate the beauty of diversity in our country.”
Powell’s visit to Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School was one of a series of visits he made to public and private high schools across the country that year. He called it “my passion right now” to inspire “a new generation of kids to take over after me.”
“Every day is a new day and a new chance to be successful. Self-improvement is something that goes on every day,” Powell told the students before leaving the school. “Each and every one of you is going to be a winner — if you want to be a winner.”
Powell is survived by his wife, Alma; three children — son Michael Powell, who was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2005, and daughters Linda Powell, an actress, and Annemarie Powell; and several grandchildren.