Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, City College alumnus, dies at 84

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CUNY

Edgar Llivisupa

Colin Powell, the first Black Secretary of State and a City College alumnus, died at age 84 on Oct. 18, following health complications from COVID-19.

“The City University of New York mourns the loss of Colin L. Powell, a true American hero who began his lifelong mission of service to his nation here at The City College of New York, class of 1958,” CUNY Chancellor Félix Rodriguez said in a news release. “Powell will be remembered as a soldier, a general, a statesman and a pioneer who broke racial barriers wherever he went throughout his distinguished and historic career.”

Powell was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and died at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, according to a family statement on Facebook.

He had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that targets white-blood cells, weakening the immune system, as well as Parkinson’s disease.

Powell was an alumnus of City College, where he majored in geology and started his time in the military with the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

After graduating in 1958, Powell was commissioned as second lieutenant and served two tours during the Vietnam War. He was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Soldier’s Medal while serving in the war.

Powell was a trailblazer during his 35-year tenure with the U.S. Army, becoming the youngest and first Black National Security Advisor in 1987 under President Ronald Reagan. He was also the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.

He retired in 1993 as a four-star general, the highest rank a civil officer can obtain in the U.S. Army.

In 2001, Bush appointed Powell to be secretary of state. The Senate voted him in unanimously, making him the first Black secretary of state in history.

Powell was best remembered during his tenure for speaking in favor of invading Iraq as U.S. intelligence officials believed the middle-eastern country possessed weapons of mass destruction.

He would later regret a 2003 speech to the United Nations in which he advocated for the invasion of Iraq, calling the speech a “lasting blot on his record.”

Powell left after Bush’s reelection and was succeeded by Condoleezza Rice.

Although he endorsed President Barack Obama during the 2008 and 2012 presidential races, Powell faced upheaval as a vocal critic of former Republican President Donald Trump, endorsing Democratic presidential nominees Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden.

Following the U.S. Capitol insurrection riots on Jan. 6, Powell told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican.”

As a City College alumnus, Powell gave back to the school often. In 1997, he lent his name to his alma mater to establish the Colin Powell Center that eventually became the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership in 2013.

“He lived this life of perpetual optimism, but optimism specifically for America,” Vincent Boudreau, president of City College, said on a radio show after Powell’s death. “But when he thought of America, he thought of what America should look like, he thought of City College. So, he didn’t see his work on this campus as charity. He didn’t see himself as helping the poor kids of Harlem and the south Bronx who were kind of struggling to get through City College. He saw his work as investing in the very best thing about the country that he loved.”

Powell also harnessed his network after decades of civil service by starting initiatives and programs for students interested in a career in public service.

“General Powell never missed a Colin Powell School graduation, and he took the time to shake the hand of every student earning a degree,” Dean of the Colin Powell School at City College Andrew Rich said in a letter to the school. “It’s hard to imagine graduation without him. But this school remains his, and every graduate of the Colin Powell School is a part of his legacy. He was proud of this place, and we are even prouder to have had him as our leader.”

Editor’s Note: Edgar Llivisupa, who wrote this article, is an intern for City College.