For the late Gen. Colin Powell, the City College of New York wasn’t just a place to get a degree.

Throughout his life and career, it was a place to call home.  

The first Black secretary state and a groundbreaking chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell graduated from City College in 1958. Members of the CCNY community remember his personal warmth, generosity and influence as a statesman. Many see his life as a model for what they could achieve.

“Knowing that he’s a son of New York City, a city of workers and artists and immigrants, it’s just very inspiring,” said student council president Andrew Salmieri, 22, who grew up in Brooklyn and is studying international relations and public policy at CCNY’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.  

The ROTC cadet who would become a four-star general.

Born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants and raised in the South Bronx, Powell graduated from Morris High School in 1954 before enrolling at City College to earn a degree in geology. While he “stumbled through math [and] fumbled through physics,” as he put in his autobiography, the future four-start general developed lifelong relationships. 

Powell died Oct. 18 at age 84 after suffering from multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease and COIVID-19.

As he is mourned today at a Washington National Cathedral funeral service, generations of City College students, alumni and administrators hold affectionate memories of the celebrated figure many came to know up close.

Yet the legacy of this native New Yorker at a college where a school bears his name remains complicated. His stature on the world stage put him at the center of U.S. military and diplomatic actions that altered the lives of millions, drawing harsh criticism at home and abroad, from the era of the Vietnam War to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Remembering All He Did

One of the Colin Powell quotes on a banner at CCNY reads: “You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.” His words can be seen as inconsistent with his actions as secretary of state in light of revelations that he was given faulty intelligence when he presented the U.S. case to invade Iraq in 2003. (Photo by Austin Cope)

Salar Abdoh, deputy chair and interim director of CCNY’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, said he is regularly reminded of the long-lasting effects of one of Powell’s most controversial actions. His United Nations speech justifying President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq was later revealed to have been based on flawed U.S. intelligence. 

Abdoh routinely passes a banner on the sixth floor of the North Academic Center displaying Powell’s photo and several of his quotations. One quote in particular stands out to him: “You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.”

“I pass those escalators all the time, and all of these years, his decision along with those that he served, has affected my life over the past few decades so enormously, as I’m from the Middle East,” said Abdoh, 56, an Iranian novelist and essayist who has written about conflict across the region. He said that while Saddam Hussein was a “despicable” dictator, the U.S. invasion Powell presented the case for had lasting, damaging repercussions. 

“For a man of his standing, and I think of his integrity, and to argue that case, and then to see those quotes every day, there’s a discombobulation,” he said. 

Nonetheless, Abdoh said he saw Powell as someone who presented “hope for the downtrodden” through his support of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And now Abdoh’s son is in his first year as a student at the Powell School.

“That’s one of the beauties of a place of an institution like CCNY, which doesn’t get many donors like Columbia or Princeton or Harvard. And when we get somebody like Colin Powell, it’s a gift. And that gift is gone now. And it’s sad. It’s sad for us—for CCNY—it’s sad for my son.”  

Samuel Innocent, an Army veteran and a onetime Colin Powell School fellow who works at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, captures a moment on a return visit to campus. (Courtesy CCNY)

CCNY to Vietnam to DC

Powell in a 1998 ad for City College, part of a campaign highlighting prominent alums.

From its founding in 1997, Powell was an avid supporter of the CCNY unit that would be named for him. He was heavily involved in fundraising and often returned to campus to support the school during graduations and other special events, especially after he retired from public service.   

“He has a great legacy at our school, and he’s someone that’s very beloved,” Salmieri said. 

Roger Langevin, 82, a 1959 graduate who marched alongside Powell with the National Society of Pershing Rifles drill team and honor society, said he was “devastated” when he learned of his passing. The retired engineer and management consultant, who lives in Westchester County, had reminisced with Powell about two weeks before, Langevin said. 

“We always talked about our fellow fraternity brothers—there’s about 110 of them still alive today.”  

In a statement written in Powell’s honor, he described his friend as a “natural leader” and “very popular,” adding: “Everyone looked up to him…and enjoyed being in his company. Powell was very friendly. He took everything seriously, but always retained a great sense of humor. Powell was a devoted family man; his family came first, and he never forgot his [Pershing Rifle] brothers.”

Powell served two tours in South Vietnam. His commendations included a Soldier’s Medal for bravery, a Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

Powell’s Reserve Officer Training Corps service at CCNY led to his entering the Army as a second lieutenant. He earned several promotions before his first tour in South Vietnam as a military advisor between 1962 and 1963. 

When he returned in 1968 as a major and assistant chief of staff, Powell oversaw an Army investigation after the My Lai massacre that resulted in a report that critics later said whitewashed atrocities by U.S. troops who killed more than 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians.

“I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened,” Powell told Larry King in 2004. “So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.” 

Powell earned a master’s degree in business administration at George Washington University in 1971. He continued to rise in the Army, reaching the rank of four-star general in 1989. He was appointed national security advisor under President Ronald Reagan.

President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush present Powell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At 52, President George H.W. Bush appointed him as the youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black general to hold the post. He oversaw the conduct of the 1991 Persian Gulf War from that position.

Throughout his rise to prominence, Powell visited CCNY and his high school, interacting with students directly.

“He always spoke from the heart—there were never any canned speeches. He made references to things we all related to at the college,” said Jon Delise, 71, a former president of the CCNY alumni association who is a retired New York City schools teacher and administrator. Delise, who lives in the Morris Park section of the Bronx, described Powell’s frequent fond remembrances of a vendor near the school known as “Raymond the Bagel Man” because he sold pretzels so large they looked like bagels. 

In both his 1995 autobiography and as recently as a Sept. 30 virtual CCNY appearance, Powell recalled being encouraged by Raymond’s warmth on a campus he initially found intimidating.

Gary Calnek, 75, of the Bronx, the current president of the CCNY Alumni Association, reflected on how Powell identified with the immigrant and working-class backgrounds of many CCNY students. Thirty-six percent of City College students identify as Hispanic or Latino, 22% as Asian and 15% as Black or African American. A vast majority— 68% percent—receive financial aid in the form of grants. 

“He was somebody that still had a lot to give. And one of the things that is interesting and unique is his desire to give back,” said Calnek, referring to Powell’s mentorship and support for students seeking careers in public service.

About a “Blot” 

Powell was appointed secretary of state in 2001 during the first term of President George W. Bush.

Though known for a generally moderate stance on military intervention, Powell made a crucial speech to the United Nations in 2003 justifying the U.S. invasion of Iraq, citing purported evidence that Saddam Hussein had access to weapons of mass destruction. The argument Powell presented was later found to have been based on incorrect U.S. intelligence. He resigned as secretary of state in 2004. In 2005, Powell called the episode “a blot” on his career.

On the second floor of the North Academic Center, a small group of students recently sat with their laptops at a table outside the library doors. Matt Bracken, 22, a junior studying public relations and political science, said he recognized Powell’s influential role at the school and appreciated the importance of his history of breaking racial barriers. However, he also knew of Powell’s U.N. speech.

“To a certain degree, his relationship with the school requires a certain amount of moralization and reverence to be given,” he said. “But I don’t think that reverence should be given with a conscious disregard of any criticism.”

On a Zoom call, Kazi Tejwar, 19, of Brooklyn, the student government vice president for campus affairs and a sophomore studying political science and sociology at the Powell School, called the speech Powell’s “main flaw.” But Tejwar said Powell’s overall record of service should outweigh that problematic chapter when assessing his life and work.

“He created so many opportunities for students that were like him,” he said, adding that as a student of color who didn’t come from wealth, he had been inspired by Powell’s commitment to the school. 

“As a kid, I used to look up to people like Thurgood Marshall, Sonia Sotomayor…and Barack Obama because they made [me], a kid, a skinny kid with a funny name, aspire to be anything he wanted to be. And, you know, Colin Powell…for City College students, he’s actually making the same impact as well.”  

Andy Rich, dean of the Powell School, put the affect of Powell’s CCNY presence in more concrete terms. He noted that with the former secretary of state’s support, the number of students in the school’s fellowship program went from eight to more than 150. 

“We needed [Powell], certainly—he didn’t need us,” Rich said. “It was because he knew we needed him that he came back. And he has left behind a college that is, I think, forever better.”