It is hard for me to picture Colin Powell still after 35 years fighting the enemy abroad and Dick Cheney at home, even as he’ll be laid to rest on Friday in a flag-draped coffin at the Washington National Cathedral.
But it’s not so hard to picture him fully alive, out of combat, traveling the country putting to use what he’d learned commanding an all-volunteer army. He’d stepped up to lead an army of volunteers as founder of America’s Promise, an organization that remains dedicated to improving the lives of young people. I covered several of his trips and saw him tear up when children at an event in Phoenix gave “America the Beautiful” their all with out-of-tune instruments donated by VH1. They were serenading the general who’d pledged to start a nationwide movement to, among other things, provide them with “a caring adult, a safe place after school, health care, and a marketable skill.”
Amid all he did, Powell’s years criss-crossing the country in search of recruits for his civilian army often goes unmentioned. In 1994, the most popular man in the country could have answered the calls from both parties to run for president, or led a Fortune 500 company, a university, or a foundation. A crate of mail promising riches arrived each day, one of the more amusing a proposal to write Chicken Soup for the Black Soul.
He resisted that entreaty to spend two years writing his best-selling memoir, My American Journey. That done, he had two compelling offers: one from Alma, to whom he was married for nearly 60 years, to get out of the basement or else. The other came from George W. Bush, asking if the general would chair the President’s Summit for America’s Future, a three-day event at Independence Hall that would also launch America’s Promise. It was star-studded with four presidents and First Lady Nancy Reagan, 25 governors, 92 mayors, seven cabinet members, and 122 business leaders.
Powell left with over 400 commitments to improve the lives of at-risk kids and he hit the road hard playing matchmaker, pairing his promises from corporations, philanthropists, and non-profits with lean, effective organizations like Communities in Schools and Points of Light. He’d go to Grand Prairie, Texas to give a paid speech and then travel nearby to community centers, church halls, and schools where he’d “kick open the doors” of those in a position to help. CEOs who once wanted him to join their boards, volunteered for his. They didn’t send H.R. to the events but came themselves to listen to Powell answer questions: Yes, he sometimes got sad but helping someone out was the best way to get over yourself. Indeed, he had big feet, size 12EE. If those two boys who went on a shooting rampage at Columbine had an adult who cared, they might not have “descended into hell.” When asked to do the Macarena, which was often, Powell would gamely try but then lapse into the Twist, his feet-planted, arms-flailing substitute. I can’t imagine any child who ever attended one of these gatherings forgetting him, or not trusting that someone would catch them should they fall.
Powell usually soldiered on dry-eyed, running his operation with military precision and hard-nosed assessments. There were no charity balls or spending half of donations on salaries (he took none) and expenses (he drove his old Volvo) in the style of tug-at-the-heartstrings, highly advertised charities. He worked in a tiny box of an office in the suburbs decorated with Army memorabilia, a print of Teddy Roosevelt charging San Juan Hill, coffee cups with corny sayings, and one tireless assistant, Peggy Cifrino, who deserves her own 21-gun salute.
Knowing what the road to hell is paved with, Powell asked PriceWaterhouseCoopers to measure (gratis) how close he’d come to reaching his good intentions of improving the lives of 2 million of the nation’s 15 million at-risk youth by 2000. The firm sampled 91 of the commitments made in 14,000 places and estimated that 10.3 million young people had been reached. In more visible terms, there was a 22 percent increase in adults enlisting as mentors at Big Brothers and Big Sisters, 100,000 new members in Boys and Girls Clubs, 3 million summer jobs for young people jump started by the U.S Chamber of Commerce, and 100,000 eye exams by LensCrafters for children from low-income families. Combining the long-term efforts of America’s Promise with others targeting high school drop-outs, the country’s graduation rate went from 70 percent in the 1990s to a record high 86 percent in 2018-2019, the drop-out rate cut in half.
Today, Powell chose a simpler church service in lieu of the pomp and circumstance of lying in state in the Capitol that military leaders are granted, another instance of looking back at where he’d been, not where he’d reached. His final days before retiring from the Army, the general stood for hours for pictures with anyone who wanted one, the grunt with no stripes, the cook in a hairnet, the GS-2 clerk who might take heart from shaking hands with the child of Jamaican immigrants who mopped floors at a warehouse in the Bronx and went through basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, where out of uniform, and sometimes in, he was a second-class citizen. He returned to the base in 1989, with four stars, to take command of all U.S. Forces.
Fame, he’d seen in his years around presidents and world leaders, comes and goes, and he found something worthy to do during his 15 minutes of it. He’ll be eulogized today as the military hero and statesman he was. But I’ll remember him dancing gamely and convincing me to volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club where he’d been on the board for years, a small example of the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force conquering one couch potato at a time.