Gen. Colin Powell remembered as a model for future generations

By Robert Burns and Matthew Lee/Associated Press | 11/11/2021, 6 p.m.
Former Gen. Colin L. Powell, the trailblazing soldier-diplomat who rose from humble beginnings to become the first Black U.S. secretary ...
The flag-draped casket of former Gen. Colin Powell, a former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. secretary of state, is carried by a military honor guard into the Washington National Cathedral for a funeral service on Nov. 5. Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Former Gen. Colin L. Powell, the trailblazing soldier-diplomat who rose from humble beginnings to become the first Black U.S. secretary of state, was remembered by family and friends last Friday as a principled man of humility and grace whose decorated record of leadership can serve as a model for generations to come.

“The example of Colin Powell does not call on us to emulate his résumé, which is too formidable for mere mortals,” his son, Michael Powell, said in a touching tribute at his father’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral. “It is to emulate his character and his example as a human being. We can strive to do that.”

The funeral on a sunny and chilly day drew dignitaries and friends from across the political and military spectrum. They included President Biden and former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush; former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and James Baker; former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Mark Milley.

Two recent presidents did not attend — former President Bill Clinton, who is recovering from a severe infection, and former President Donald Trump, who publicly disparaged Gen. Powell after his death for having been critical of the former president.

Gen. Powell died Oct. 18, 2021, of complications from COVID-19 at age 84. He had been vaccinated against the coronavirus, but his family said his immune system had been compromised by multiple myeloma, a blood cancer for which he had been undergoing treatment.

Attendees at the funeral were required to wear masks. Not all did.

As guests gathered in the cavernous cathedral that has hosted the funerals of several past presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, the U.S. Army Brass Quintet played a range of tunes, including “Dancing Queen” by Abba, a favorite of Gen. Powell’s.

Richard Armitage, who served as the State Department’s No.-2-ranking official while Gen. Powell was secretary of state during the Bush administration, recalled the day Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, came to call and—knowing of Gen. Powell’s affection for Abba—presented him with a full CD set of the group’s music.

“Colin immediately went down on one knee and sang the entire ‘Mamma Mia’ to a very amused foreign minister of Sweden and to a gob-smacked U.S. delegation. They’d never seen anything like it,” said Mr. Armitage, who described a 40-year friendship with Gen. Powell that began while both served in the Pentagon.

Madeleine Albright, who was Gen. Powell’s immediate predecessor as secretary of state, called him “a figure who almost transcended time,” and “one of the gentlest and most decent people any of us will ever meet.”

“He relished the opportunity to connect with other generations,” she said.

“This morning, my heart aches,” she added, “because we’ve lost a friend and our nation one of its finest and most loyal soldiers. Yet even as we contemplate the magnitude of our loss, we can almost hear a familiar voice asking us—no,

commanding us—to stop feeling sad, to turn our gaze once again from the past to the future and to get on with the nation’s business while making the most of our own days on Earth, one step at a time.”

During her tenure as ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, Ms.Albright sometimes clashed with Gen. Powell, although they became good friends.

The story of Gen. Powell’s rise to prominence in American life is a classic.

Although he was only 4 when the United States entered World War II, he had vivid memories of the war years. “I deployed legions of lead soldiers and directed battles on the living room rug,” he wrote—a fantasy forerunner of his Army years.

Gen. Powell would serve 35 years in uniform. Commissioned in 1958, he served around the world, including two tours in Vietnam in the 1960s.

He distinguished himself at the Pentagon even before he attained flag officer rank. In the late 1970s he worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and in 1983 as a brigadier general he became the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. He later served in the White House as President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, and in 1989 he was promoted to a four-star general.