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Former Secretary of State Colin Powell Dies at Age 84

The retired four-star general died due to complications from COVID-19

 Secretary of State Colin Powell listens as President Bush speaks on trade promotion authority at the Department of State,  April 04, 2002

Corbis Historical / Getty Images

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When Colin Powell was 16 and living in the South Bronx, he wrote an essay about himself as part of an application to the City College of New York, which he would enter just shy of his 17th birthday. Almost 40 years later, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs was writing a book, My American Journey, and retrieved that essay, along with his kindergarten report cards and transcripts of grades, from the board of education.

“What was so striking about it,” Powell, who died at 84 on Oct. 18 of complications from COVID-19 and multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood, told AARP in 2012, “is that I’m pretty much the same person [now]. What I see in the mirror is still that 16-year-old kid going to college, and that 21-year-old lieutenant going in the army, and that 25-year-old lieutenant getting married. I have said to many people over the years that I have worked hard to not be terribly different.

“Yes, I now have four stars [as a general]. Yes, I’m a cabinet officer, but I’m still that 16-year-old kid. And I have found that not just to be a nice way to be, but a very effective system of leadership and management.”

The son of Jamaican immigrants who rose to the highest levels of the federal executive branch, Colin Luther Powell, by all accounts, achieved his goal of remaining humble, accessible and kind (he also possessed a quick sense of humor), even as he balanced the enormous responsibility of his positions and his role as a trailblazer for people of color.

When word of his death came today, politicians and public figures of both major parties honored the towering figure as a patriot, military leader, and shaper of domestic and international relations in his role as statesman. Powell, a Republican who valued common sense and fairness over party, had argued for social progression on such issues as women’s right to choose and gay rights, more typically associated with Democrats.

President George W. Bush, in whose administration Powell served, called him “a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam. He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice.” In 2006, AARP added to his many awards and honors with the Andrus Award for Community Service and positive social change.

Stacey Abrams, a Democrat and the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, said that he “led with integrity, admitted fallibility and defended democracy.”

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Powell, who, at 52, became the youngest Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense, led the U.S. military to victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and oversaw 28 crises. But in 2003, he wrestled with President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Though he was skeptical of the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, and had internal struggles with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney — with whom he’d worked as national security adviser when the former was the House minority leader — Powell nonetheless lent his support to the invasion in a speech before the United Nations.

After Iraq was found not to have weapons of mass destruction, Powell called that speech “painful” and a “blot” on his legacy. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” he said, adding that his presentation “will always be a part of my record.”

Married for 59 years to Birmingham, Alabama, native Alma Johnson, whom he met on a blind date, Powell was a devoted family man and father to daughters Linda and Annemarie and son Michael, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. In 1996, 12 years before Barack Obama was elected the first African American president, the Republican Party considered Powell a possible presidential candidate. But his wife was opposed to it, and he bowed to her wishes.

He seemed not to mind, preferring to remain a regular guy at heart.

“You have to have that kind of grounding in life,” he told AARP. “My hobby for many years was fixing old cars as a way of clearing my head. Very few of the problems that I worked on during my day job lent themselves to that kind of straightforward analysis. All my assistants knew where to find me on a Saturday or Sunday: ‘He’s in the garage, under something.’ It’s important to have that kind of balance in your life.

Alanna Nash is a contributing writer who covers celebrity and entertainment. She has written 10 books, including several on Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton. She received a Country Music Association Media Achievement Award and a Charlie Lamb Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism.