(CNN)From the streets of New York to the Vietnam battlefields and the power corridors of Washington, Colin Powell broke racial barriers to become one of the nation’s top diplomats.
Beside him all along was one quiet force: Alma Johnson Powell. Colin Powell died at 84 this week of coronavirus complications after fighting cancer. As a US Army general and statesman, he met some of the world’s most influential leaders. But when journalist Bob Woodward asked him the greatest person he’s ever known, his answer, without hesitation, was his wife of over half a century. Their marriage demonstrated that love, respect and honor go hand in hand, said Andra Gillespie, an associate political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. She cited Powell wife’s objection to his running for president in 1996 despite Republican pleas and polls in his favor. At the time, Alma Powell described the hate mail and random phone calls they received as her retired four-star general husband contemplated making a bid to become the nation’s first Black president. Read More”Being asked to run for president is probably the biggest stroke to one’s ego a person could possibly have,” Gillespie said. “To turn it down because one’s spouse objects to running is a testament to how much Colin Powell valued his marriage and how much he respected his wife’s opinion.”Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the greatest person he’s ever known is his wife, Alma Powell. Their relationship almost didn’t happen Before Powell left for Vietnam, he was a single soldier in his 20s trying to navigate relationships against the backdrop of military life. One blind date in November 1961 changed everything.In his autobiography, “My American Journey,” Powell recalls how his Army roommate, Michael Heningburg, asked him to “run interference” for him by entertaining a friend of a girl he was interested in. At the time, Powell preferred to be single. But he decided to meet the friend nonetheless for a double date at a Boston club. That friend turned out to be Alma Johnson, and he was awestruck.”She was fair-skinned with light brown hair and a lovely figure. I was mesmerized by a pair of luminous eyes, an unusual shade of green,” he wrote. “(She) moved gracefully and spoke graciously with a soft Southern accent.”Alma Johnson wasn’t exactly thrilled about going out with a soldier, Powell wrote in the book. She reluctantly agreed to the outing — but piled on makeup and wore weird clothes to repel any ideas of a future date. But as soon as she peeked into the room and saw the shy, baby-faced soldier waiting to take her out, she was curious about him. She vanished into the bathroom, redid her makeup and changed her clothes, he wrote. At the time, she worked as an audiologist for the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing. A night of music, drinks and conversations about their professions led to a second date. Before long, they were exclusive. Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, met on a blind date in November 1961, and got married months later. At first, he wasn’t sure she’d fit in Powell was smitten — but he wasn’t sure how she’d fit into his loud, West Indian family. She’d grown up in Birmingham, Alabama, while he was the son of Jamaican immigrants in New York’s Bronx borough. Parties at his house were loud and ran all night or until the rum dried out — whichever came first. “A well-bred girl from a proper Southern family needed to be exposed gradually to noisy, noisy, fun-loving West Indians,” Powell wrote in his autobiography. His family loved Alma Johnson, and her feelings were mutual. She met all his bachelor and couple friends in the military. Compared to the segregation in the South, she was fascinated by the military’s social integration, Powell wrote. Her father was an influential principal at a Birmingham school for Black students in the 1960s, a time when the state was in the throes of the civil rights movement.By the summer of 1962, just before President John F. Kennedy ordered Powell to go to Vietnam as part of a group of advisers, he proposed to his girlfriend. Powell’s father was so wary of the racial conflict in Alabama at the time, he threatened not to go to the wedding in her hometown. “You wouldn’t catch me dead in Birmingham,” Luther Powell is quoted as saying in his son’s book. “I’ll send you a telegram with my best wishes.”But when he found out his daughter and son-in-law — an interracial couple from Buffalo, New York — would brave the trip to the South for the wedding, he had to rethink his stance. The Powells were married at Birmingham’s First Congregational Christian Church on August 25, 1962. An ecstatic Luther Powell watched them exchange vows at the crowded church, his son wrote. But parties were different in the South. He was stunned that there was no alcohol or music at the reception.She faced challenges as a military wifeColin Powell’s military path started with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at City College in New York. In 1989, after serving as national security adviser, he rose to the rank of a four-star general before becoming the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later secretary of state. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney administers the oath of office to Gen. Colin Powell as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as Alma Powell holds the Bible.Nothing prepared Alma Powell for the challenges of being a soldier’s wife.Four months after they got married, she said decades later in an interview on military spouses, he was sent to Vietnam. Back then, military spouses relied on letters to stay in touch.”You were truly isolated from your family member,” she said in the 2006 interview. “Our son was born while he was in Vietnam, and he didn’t know he was born until he was two weeks old because there was no instant communication. He was in the jungle near the Cambodian border.”She navigated the first few years of her life as a newlywed alone, calling it “the defining experience of my life.” With their children, Michael, Linda and Annemarie, the family bounced from one post to another in Colin Powell’s decades of military service. In addition to living on various bases in the United States, he served two tours in Vietnam, was stationed in South Korea and West Germany, and oversaw Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. “Part of who I am is because of my career as a military wife. I think of the military as family,” Alma Powell said. “During the course of our young lives, he was often away. … So, like many military spouses today, you’re essentially a single parent. Your job was to make a home wherever you were. Home was where we were as a family, wherever that was.” A life of public service toward ‘America’s Promise’Colin Powell was admired on the national and world stage. But his reputation at senior government levels was tainted by his decision to lead the United States into a long, disastrous war in Iraq. As George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, he pushed faulty intelligence before the United Nations to advocate for the Iraq War, which he would later call a “blot” on his record.After his four decades of public life in which he held roles as the nation’s top soldier, diplomat and national security adviser, he stepped down from his job as secretary of state in 2005. But he did not fade from public service. He gave back to his alma mater, the City College of New York, through the Colin Powell School for Civic And Global Leadership, a nonpartisan educational, training and research center.Alma Powell never sat on the sidelines, either. Like her husband, she was an avid youth advocate, and she wrote two children’s books, “America’s Promise” and “My Little Wagon.” Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesColin Powell poses for a portrait in 2012.Hide Caption 1 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell married his wife, Alma, in 1962, He joined the US Army in 1958 and served two tours of duty in South Vietnam.Hide Caption 2 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesA young Powell takes a photo of himself in a mirror. Powell, a son of Jamaican immigrants, was born in Harlem, New York, in 1937 and grew up in the South Bronx. He attended the City College of New York, where he participated in ROTC, leading the precision drill team and attaining the top rank offered by the corps.Hide Caption 3 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell serves as an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion while deployed in 1963. Powell was wounded that year by a Viet Cong booby trap. He was also wounded in a 1969 helicopter crash in which he rescued two soldiers.Hide Caption 4 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell confers with US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger during a Senate committee meeting in Washington in 1985. Powell stayed in the Army after returning home from Vietnam, attending the National War College and rising in leadership. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1979, and he became a senior military assistant to Weinberger in 1983.Hide Caption 5 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell became the nation’s first Black national security adviser in 1987. From left here are White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker, Secretary of State George Shultz, Powell and President Ronald Reagan. They were discussing an upcoming summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.Hide Caption 6 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell advises Reagan in 1988 during an Oval Office meeting of the National Security Council.Hide Caption 7 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell accompanies Reagan on a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1988.Hide Caption 8 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesIn 1989, Powell was tapped by President George H.W. Bush to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Here, he speaks during a Pentagon briefing about Panama. At left is Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who later became vice president of the United States.Hide Caption 9 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesAlthough Powell was initially reluctant to commit US troops when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he became one of the administration’s most trusted spokesmen when the assault on Saddam Hussein’s army finally came.Hide Caption 10 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell addresses the crew of the USS Wisconsin during Operation Desert Shield in 1990.Hide Caption 11 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell joins President George H.W. Bush and other key advisers at the President’s summer home near Kennebunkport, Maine, in 1990. Bush is on the left in the blue hat.Hide Caption 12 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell and Cheney talk to reporters during a Pentagon briefing in 1990.Hide Caption 13 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell playfully uses the head of Air Force Sgt. Thaddeus Fernandez while autographing a Saudi monetary note in 1990. Powell was visiting an Air Force base in San Antonio.Hide Caption 14 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell makes a point about entrenched Iraqi troops during a Pentagon briefing in 1991.Hide Caption 15 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell addresses the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1991, shortly after the end of the Gulf War.Hide Caption 16 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell tours a Soviet air base in 1991.Hide Caption 17 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell reads aboard the USS Wasp while it was off the coast of Somalia in 1993.Hide Caption 18 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell salutes as he tells a story about himself and former President Ronald Reagan in 1996. He was attending Reagan’s 85th birthday celebration at a restaurant in West Hollywood, California.Hide Caption 19 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell flies over Arlington, Virginia, in a Blackhawk helicopter in 1996.Hide Caption 20 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell joins Republican candidate Bob Dole, center, and Dole’s running mate, Jack Kemp, while the two were campaigning in Louisville, Kentucky, before the 1996 election.Hide Caption 21 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell and Cheney fly to Waco, Texas, for a meeting with President-elect George W. Bush in 2000. Bush would later nominate Powell to be secretary of state.Hide Caption 22 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell takes photos beside his wife, Alma, at Bush’s inauguration in 2001.Hide Caption 23 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell is joined by his wife as the President swears him in as secretary of state in 2001.Hide Caption 24 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell testifies about various foreign policy issues during a Senate committee hearing in 2001.Hide Caption 25 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesFrom left, Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Powell share a laugh in Rumsfeld’s office in 2001.Hide Caption 26 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesFormer President Bill Clinton pats Powell’s back as they depart the Washington National Cathedral in 2001. They were there on the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, honoring those who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks.Hide Caption 27 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesBush and Powell meet in the White House Oval Office in 2001.Hide Caption 28 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell shakes hands with Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai in 2002. It was the first time a US secretary of state had visited Afghanistan since 1976.Hide Caption 29 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell prepares to testify about Bush’s budget proposal before a Senate committee hearing in 2002.Hide Caption 30 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell receives a pat on the cheek from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice during an Oval Office meeting in 2002. In 2005, Rice would succeed Powell as secretary of state.Hide Caption 31 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell and Bush attend a NATO summit in Prague, Czech Republic, in 2002. Behind them are Rice and Rumsfeld.Hide Caption 32 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell holds up a vial, which he described as one that could contain anthrax, during a speech to the United Nations Security Council in 2003. Powell presented evidence that the US intelligence community said proved Iraq had misled inspectors and hid weapons of mass destruction. “There can be no doubt,” Powell warned, “that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” The United States went to war with Iraq just six weeks after Powell’s speech. Inspectors, however, later found no such weaponry in Iraq, and two years after Powell’s UN speech, a government report said the intelligence community was “dead wrong” in its assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities. Powell later called his UN speech a “blot” that will forever be on his record. “The event will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary,” Powell wrote in his 2012 memoir.Hide Caption 33 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesBush meets with his war council in the White House Situation Room in 2003. Powell is next to Bush on the right.Hide Caption 34 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell appears before a Senate committee in 2003. He spoke on various issues, including North Korea and the post-war situation in Iraq.Hide Caption 35 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell speaks to the media after UN weapons inspector Hans Blix delivered a speech to the UN Security Council in 2003.Hide Caption 36 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell stands with Bush before the President signed a $15 billion global AIDS bill in 2003.Hide Caption 37 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell takes reporters’ questions during a 2004 news conference at the State Department.Hide Caption 38 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell reads over papers while standing in the Oval Office in 2004.Hide Caption 39 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesBush and Powell wave from Powell’s home in McLean, Virginia, in 2005.Hide Caption 40 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesFrom left, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Powell and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the US Diplomacy Center at the State Department in Washington in 2014.Hide Caption 41 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell, left, joins national security leaders past and present while meeting with President Barack Obama in 2015. The meeting was about the national security implications of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact. From left are Powell, former Secretary of State James Baker, Obama, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Albright.Hide Caption 42 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell salutes as he and other former military commanders pay their last respects to former President George H.W. Bush in 2018.Hide Caption 43 of 44 Photos: Colin Powell's life in picturesPowell shakes hands with President Donald Trump during the Ford’s Theatre Gala in Washington in 2019. Though the large majority of Powell’s time as a public servant was spent in Republican administrations, the later years of his life saw him supporting Democratic presidential candidates and harshly criticizing top Republican leaders. Powell endorsed Obama, voted for Hillary and also supported Joe Biden. He once called Trump a “national disgrace and an international pariah.”Hide Caption 44 of 44“I simply had to the tell the story of America’s promise. And that was an easy way to do it,” Alma Powell said in an interview in 2017. “I very carefully made all the characters in my books animals so that we wouldn’t say we’re dealing with one child that looks like this. We are not worried about what you look like.” She worked as chair of the board of directors for America’s Promise Alliance, helping unite educational, cultural, charitable and civic organizations to serve young people. She also served on President Barack Obama’s advisory board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.In a 2013 interview, Colin Powell remarked about his life.”I have had a chance to serve my country, and I’ve had a chance to do things that have benefited my country,” he said. “And when it’s all over, I just hope that they say, ‘He was a good soldier, he raised a good family, and God bless him.’ That’s all I ask for. ‘”Together, the Powells exemplify the selflessness and respect that can apply to any relationship, said Gillespie, the political science scholar.”In a nation where according to the most recent figures from the American Psychological Association, the long-term probability of divorce is close to 50%, it is always heartwarming to see couples who are able to have long-lasting, healthy relationships,” she said. Throughout his journey as a trailblazing soldier and diplomat, Powell did not walk alone. He had a partner in more ways than one.
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