The nation and world paused at high noon Friday for the homegoing service of an American statesman, politician, soldier and devoted patriarch, General Colin L. Powell, who died from complications due to COVID-19, Oct. 18 at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
A trailblazer in every sense of the word, Powell, 84, embodied the spirited quest for the “American dream,” becoming the nation’s first Black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state during a career which spanned nearly 40 years.
His funeral service, held at the Washington National Cathedral in Northwest, attracted both the powerful and powerless, including family, friends, colleagues and even perfect strangers, who filled the pews of the regal house of prayer and worship.
Streamed live for the millions of well-wishers unable to attend, both in the U.S. and abroad, Powell’s funeral epitomized his penchant for and unique ability to successfully assemble seemingly different kinds of people in a singular setting where, for a brief moment in time, the differences mattered far less than the similarities.
The music equally reflected a diverse array of genres, from fanfares delivered on pipe organ or by a military ensemble to hallowed hymns and songs of praise sung acapella by a celestial choir or a solo voice as exemplified in the baritone splendor of Wintley Phipps.
The many dignitaries who attended in support of the Powell family included President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, two former presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, both accompanied by their wives, and former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton whose husband, former president Bill Clinton, could not attend due to illness.
Personal Reflections on the General
During the reflections shared by those who knew him best, Richard Armitage, a former diplomat, government official and U.S. Navy officer, began the testimonials providing insight into the life of his comrade, fellow veteran and friend for four decades.
“When I once asked ‘CP’ what trait he valued most within a leader, he replied, someone whose troops would follow them anywhere – if for no other reason than their curiosity to see where they were going,” Armitage said. “But he also emphasized the importance of treating people with a little more kindness than we may think they deserve because we never know what’s going on in their lives.”
Armitage shared several anecdotes which illustrated Powell’s humor, insatiable curiosity and how comfortable he felt in his own skin.
The first memory harkened back to a celebratory afternoon during which Powell held court with the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters. While Powell and the athletes playfully passed a basketball around the room, Armitage said he recalled that whenever his friend received the ball, he would fumble it before dropping it to the ground.
When one of the Globetrotters inquired why, Powell, reflecting on his youth, said, “While you were out shooting hoops, I was out stealing hubcaps.”
Another vignette revealed a lesson which Armitage said he will never forget. Powell, who often enjoyed sneaking away from his security detail, once surprised a parking attendant at the Pentagon and asked him what factors led to determining who among the many visitors to the facility would be relegated to front versus back row seating.
The attendant said those who treated him or his coworkers with dignity, greeting them warmly and engaging in friendly conversation, would be given the best seats available. However, those who barely acknowledged them, sometimes not even letting their windows down to speak, would find themselves in the back.
“It was a nugget and an enlightening moment for me,” Armitage said. “It helped me understand how each person had equal value in Colin’s eyes, no matter who they were or what they did.”
“And while we had very different tastes in music, we did share one common love for Caribbean music,” he said. “Also, Colin loved the church – its ceremony, liturgy and the high hymns. We talked almost every day, usually early in the morning except on Sundays and our conversation would always be the same.”
“He’d say he’d been at church earlier and was in the state of grace. I would reply, if he was not in a state of grace, who among us is. This was our routine for 40 years and I will miss him and the times which we shared together,” Armitage said.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright began her remarks saying, “my heart is sad because I have lost a friend.”
She pointed to the many differences that existed between her and Powell, illustrating how those distinctions ultimately led to the forging of a close relationship over the course of 25 years.
“Under his glossy exterior, he was one of the most gentle people I’ve ever met,” she said. “His virtues rested on the Homeric including honesty, dignity, loyalty and a commitment to his words. He sought to instill those characteristics in his soldiers, colleagues and staff as well as students and youth he met along the way.”
“He relished the opportunity to connect with those from other generations and believed the time was always right to reach out to someone who sought to reach up and better themselves and their life. As for our relationship, it grew from one of mutual respect to one of mutual affection,” she said.
Powell’s Son Shares Lasting Thoughts
The Rev. Stuart Kenworthy, the canon of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, delivered the homily, saying, “Colin was a man of discernable gifts” and “Colin knew the Lord.”
However, among the powerful and emotionally-charged reflections about Powell would be those shared by the general’s son, Michael K. Powell, who spoke on behalf of his sisters and mother.
“My dad had a passion for people, all people – from the hotdog vendor or janitor to a student – and he treated them just like any world leader,” he said.
“I don’t think we should try to emulate his ‘resume virtues’ but as for his character and the example he set as a human being, we can seek to emulate that. We can choose to be good. Not just do good but be good and like him, live in obedience to some transcendent trust.”
“One of the most powerful memories I have is holding my dad’s hand. I was in an intensive care unit after a very bad accident and when I woke up, he was sitting next to me. I was in a lot of pain and remember that as he squeezed my hand, I felt an instant sense of peace.”
“On the last night of his life, I walked into his hospital room – he could neither see nor speak. Still, I wanted him to be at peace. I took hold of that hand which had signed treaties and war orders and which he used to jester with while telling stories. That hand which left a deep imprint on the lives of presidents, prime ministers, soldiers, friends and young people. I held that hand like he had taken mine decades before and which gave me a sense of peace, hoping to do the same.”
“I’m often asked if I believe we are still making the kinds of people who were like my dad. I think the answer is up to us. His journey, as he said in his autobiography, was an American journey. My dad was a great lion with a big heart. And I, we, will miss him terribly,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion as he left the podium.
WI staff writer James Wright contributed to this story.