Home Metro Plus Longtime Powell Friend Recalls Humble Statesman, ‘Man of His Word’ 

Longtime Powell Friend Recalls Humble Statesman, ‘Man of His Word’ 

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This week Americans and others around the world are reflecting on the life and legacy of Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state and top military officer, who died Monday at age 84. Powell’s family said he died of complications due to COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated but had been battling multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that suppresses the immune system.

Those close to Powell say that in addition to his being a statesman, he also was a great friend. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb spoke to retired Army Colonel Joe Schwar, whose friendship with Powell spanned six decades, about how Schwar would like his friend to be remembered.

Joe Schwar met Colin Powell in early 1959. Both were brand new Army second lieutenants stationed in Germany.

“He was a bachelor. I was married. He knew basically where to get a free meal,” Schwar said with a laugh. “So, the three of us became very good friends during the two years we served together.”

Schwar’s next assignment was at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Schwar is a white man from the northern state of Pennsylvania. He said Powell was one of the first Black men he ever knew.

Schwar wasn’t too familiar with the racial policies in the era of segregation, which often mandated separate facilities for Blacks and whites until the 1960s. He said he had been on the base in North Carolina about a year when “there was a knock on my door. Open it up and there was Colin Powell. Colin was distraught because he couldn’t find a place that he considered satisfactory for his new bride. I believe it was the Jim Crow [laws] at work there. I guess my wife and I looked at each other and without blinking an eye basically said, ‘Stay with us.’ ”

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Powell, his wife Alma, the Schwars and their young kids shared their three-bedroom apartment for six weeks, until Powell finished his training to deploy to Vietnam, and Alma went to live with her family during his deployment.

“And as long as we stayed by on Fort Bragg, we could go anywhere together. We could do anything together,” Schwar said. ” … Once or twice my wife and Alma went down into Fayetteville. Alma was very sensitive about being a Black African American. She educated my wife, basically on what she could and could not do, and my wife had a little rebellious spirit and she could not understand why Alma allowed this to happen.”

Schwar said the prejudice Alma Powell saw growing up in the South perhaps led to her caution years later when her husband was considering a run for president.

“She was concerned about him,” he said. “Not his ability to serve as president, but his physical security serving as president. And I believe she talked him out of it.”

After that fateful deployment to Germany in 1959, Schwar and Powell continued to cross paths. They fought just a few kilometers apart in Vietnam. They also studied at Fort Benning together.

“Fast forward to the mid-1970s,” Schwar said. “I was on my way to the Pentagon for an assignment, Colin had already been in the Pentagon for a year when I got there. And as things happen in the military, you get there, your house isn’t ready for you, your furniture hasn’t arrived yet.

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“So, we were having dinner with Alma and Colin, and I mentioned the house isn’t going to be ready for a while, blah blah blah. Colin says, ‘Alma, start doubling up the kids in the rooms; the Schwars are moving in with us.’ ”

And that, Schwar said, was just typical Powell: a regular guy, a regular good guy, someone a young Schwar never suspected would one day rise to be a four-star general and secretary of state.

“One of the most unforgettable people that I ever served with,” he said. “It was just a consistent outstanding record of performance. He was never pretentious. He was a man of his word. What you see is what you get.”

And what the nation got was decade upon decade of steadfast service. Powell will be remembered at the Pentagon as one of the greats, following in the footsteps of George Marshall, a general-turned-secretary of defense and secretary of state, and paving the way for generals like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and current Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

But Powell’s kindness and his dedication to country, family and friends are what Schwar wants the world to remember.

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