Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the first African-American to serve in the high-ranking position, passed away Monday due to complications from COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated against the virus. He was 84 years old.
The beloved public servant, who had multiple myeloma, died after being treated at the Walter Reed National Medical Center, according to a statement from his family. His passing elicited a flurry of mournful statements from the many government officials and politicians with whom he served.
Former President George W. Bush said he is “deeply saddened” by the death of Powell, who served as his first secretary of State.
“He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam,” said Bush, noting “many presidents relied on Gen. Powell’s counsel and experience.”
What should you know?
A man who spent much of his life in public service, here are a few things to know about Powell in the wake of his death.
He was a believer.
While not a whole lot is known about Powell’s faith, several reports indicate he was a Christian. The former secretary of State, born to Jamaican immigrants in New York City on April 5, 1937, was raised in the Episcopal church.
In his 2012 memoir, “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership,” Powell recalled his time as the senior layperson at a small Episcopal church in northern Virginia, where an elderly priest told the congregation: “Always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.”
“That sentence hit me for four decades,” wrote Powell. “The lesson was clear: Kindness is not just about being nice; it’s about recognizing another human being who deserves care and respect.”
He served in Vietnam.
By his own admission, Powell was just an average student who left high school without much of a direction. It was when he was studying at the City College of New York that he joined the ROTC, which he later characterized as one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.
“I not only liked it,” he said, “but I was pretty good at it.”
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1958 and immediately began basic training in Georgia, where, as a result of his skin color, he was denied service at restaurants and bars. Then, in 1962, he was sent as an adviser to South Vietnam by then-President John F. Kennedy.
Powell returned to Vietnam in 1968, commended for his bravery after surviving a helicopter crash and rescuing three other soldiers from the wreckage.
He advised several presidents.
When he left Vietnam, Powell earned an MBA at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and, soon after, won an impressive White House fellowship under President Richard Nixon.
Powell, after achieving general-status, served as an advisor to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. And, when then-President George H.W. Bush entered office in 1989, he was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the U.S. Department of Defense.
He made history twice as both the youngest at 52 years old and the first black American to hold the job.
Though he found it difficult to work in a more left-leaning administration, Powell stayed on as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the beginning of Clinton presidency.
Most famously, of course, the eventually four-star general served as George W. Bush’s secretary of State from 2001 to 2005, helping to craft much of the U.S. response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He considered running for office.
In 1996, Powell briefly considered a run for office as a challenger to then-President Bill Clinton. Ultimately, though, he decided he just didn’t have the fortitude for such a politically taxing effort.
After what he described as “prayerful consideration,” Powell bowed out of the running.
“Such a life requires a calling I do not yet hear,” he said, referring to stepping into political life. “For me to pretend otherwise would not be honest to myself, it would not be honest to the American people, and I would break that bond of trust.”
Bush, in his statement on Powell’s passing, described him as “a favorite of presidents.”
He left the GOP after more than 25 years.
Frustrating conservatives, Powell officially abandoned the Republican Party in early 2021, telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria he “can no longer“ call himself “a fellow Republican.”
“You know, I’m not a fellow of anything right now,” he said. “I’m just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat, throughout my entire career and, right now, I’m just watching my country and not concerned with parties.”
The late-in-life shift was, however, not a surprise. In 2008, he endorsed then-candidate Barack Obama, whom he called “a transformational figure,” arguing the GOP had “moved more to the right than I would like to see.”
He voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016 and now-President Joe Biden in November of last year.
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