Reflections on a life well-lived: Remembering Colin Powell’s service to his country

·5 min read

The announcement of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s death last week brought back fond memories of two occasions when I had the privilege to spend time with this American icon and genuinely nice guy. On both visits, I learned of his humanity and keen interest in those less advantaged, especially the country’s youth.

Bob Kustra
Bob Kustra

The first time was when he visited me in my Chicago office while I was Illinois’ lieutenant governor and he had retired from the military, declared himself a Republican, decided against running for high elective office and was pondering his future.

Two things stand out for me about that day. First was when he spotted a photo on the wall of me surrounded by exuberant soldiers and wanted to know all about the soldiers and the occasion of the photo. I explained that they had just returned from Operation Desert Storm, a war Gen. Powell successfully oversaw as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But it wasn’t just that success that drew his attention. He wanted to know more about how the state of Illinois had welcomed home his men and women in uniform.

I explained that I had just arrived in the office of lieutenant governor when our troops were returning home from victory in their effort to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Many of the soldiers would be landing at O’Hare in Chicago, and there was a need for an official greeting party of public officials to be on hand for their arrival, welcoming them home and thanking them for their service.

Then-Gov. Jim Edgar was busy with his official schedule across the state, so it fell to his lieutenant governor to show up at O’Hare and offer greetings on behalf of Illinoisans. They arrived in stages, so on more than one occasion I would greet the troops as they deboarded and express our appreciation for their successful tours of duty.

Gen. Powell was also interested in other duties of the office of lieutenant governor, especially issues related to young children growing up in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. More specifically, he expressed concern for inner-city kids who lacked access to a quality education and companion social welfare programs. At the time, my staff and I had introduced a pilot program across the state in school districts with substantial numbers of low-income students. It offered before-and-after school services to students whose families couldn’t afford the necessities of life that often determined their success in the classroom.

When I explained the program to Gen. Powell, it was clear he was interested in learning more about how he could provide leadership that might improve the lives of these kids. He acknowledged his lifetime of service in the military and his interest now, as he approached the end of his military career, in domestic policy and how he could be of value to his country in very different ways.

True to his word, Colin Powell would become the founding chair of America’s Promise — The Alliance for Youth, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing people from every sector of American life to build the character and competence of young people. The organization was founded on the idea that children and youth need “five promises” to thrive — caring adults, safe spaces, a healthy start, effective education and the opportunity to serve — but that not nearly enough young people have access to these basic resources.

Colin Powell traveled the length and breadth of the country in those years following his retirement from the military, advocating on behalf of children and calling on corporate and government leaders to make the nation’s young people an urgent national priority. He called for expanded volunteer and philanthropic efforts for children and encouraged governors to launch statewide America’s Promise efforts.

From left, Bob Kustra, Colin Powell and Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, during a visit in 2000 from Powell, who at the time was head of the group America’s Promise.
From left, Bob Kustra, Colin Powell and Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, during a visit in 2000 from Powell, who at the time was head of the group America’s Promise.

The second occasion to be with Gen. Powell came in 2000 when Kentucky’s governor and Gen. Powell convened a statewide America’s Promise summit on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University where I served as president. Spending time with him that day, I watched him interact with his unique personal touch with representatives of the communities, schools, colleges and universities he brought together on behalf of America’s Promise.

That’s the Colin Powell I will remember, the general who re-engaged with his country and devoted his talents to enlisting corporate and government leaders to redouble their efforts in helping disadvantaged children succeed in school and life.

It was only two months later and near the end of Powell’s three-year commitment to chairing America’s Promise that he stepped back onto the world stage as the nation’s Secretary of State.

While he was seen as an effective and revered head of our diplomatic corps, most accounts of his career highlight his speech at the United Nations where he would mistakenly declare that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That isn’t surprising since it lent credence to President George W. Bush’s long, deadly and mistaken war in the Gulf region. There were intelligence officers who knew what Powell would claim that day was false, but they refused to speak up. Powell himself would call his speech a “blot” on his record that pained him greatly.

This nation has just endured four years of a president who is so self-absorbed and so incapable of ever admitting fault that he refuses to apologize for any of his egregious behavior. His disparaging statement about Powell ranks up there as one of the most insensitive and repulsive reflections on a life and career well-lived.

As we reflect on Colin Powell’s service to his nation, I remember a man who served his country with honor and dignity in key military and civilian roles and who, along the way, acknowledged his mistakes. Finally, a man who remembered his roots as the son of Jamaican immigrants and who worked tirelessly on behalf of our nation’s young people so they could follow in his footsteps.

Few Americans who have served at the highest levels of government can come close to a record like that.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Reader’s Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a regular columnist for the Idaho Statesman. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.

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