The tall African American young man stood proudly alongside two of his fellow students at Olney Charter School. He was visibly moved as he stepped to the microphone set up in front of their artwork they were dedicating that day, a lasting visual tribute to an extraordinary American whose life had inspired them.
“It was an honor to work on this project,” Darontaye Blake said. “I didn’t know men like him existed.”
The role model he was referring to was Gen. Colin L. Powell, whose loss the country is mourning after his family announced on Monday that he had died of complications from COVID-19 at the age of 84.
Darontaye and his schoolmates Darwin Morales and Rey’Na Riggans were among the racially diverse Olney students who worked with Mural Arts Philadelphia to create a beautiful giant mural dedicated to Gen. Powell that graces one of the external walls of their high school, where the general’s legacy, and a reminder of the lives he touched in Philadelphia, live on after his death.
The son of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in the South Bronx, N.Y., Gen. Powell never forgot his humble origins in an epic life that saw him serve his country as a soldier, military leader, and statesman, leading the U.S. armed forces as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and becoming the first Black U.S. secretary of state.
Less well-known is the life of service he led after leaving government and the military, dedicating his time, energy, and resources to focus on young people, whose education and development he saw as the keys to a better world.
I first met Gen. Powell as a young White House correspondent in the late 1980s, when he was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. Three decades later, I had the good fortune to work closely with the general in his role as chairman of Eisenhower Fellowships, one of the world’s premier international leadership organizations, a nongovernmental, nonpartisan nonprofit that connects Philadelphia to the world beyond our nation’s shores. Eisenhower fellows are woven into the fabric of Philadelphia, leading local institutions from City Hall to the Fire Department to the city’s great nonprofits.
Gen. Powell served with distinction as our chairman for 12 years, relishing his time with our fellows and generously supporting our work with his personal donations. Heartfelt tributes are pouring in from Eisenhower fellows around the world whose lives he influenced. “Best president we never had,” one caller said.
Along with Eisenhower Fellowships, Gen. Powell was deeply proud of the work of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, his alma mater in Harlem, and he and Mrs. Powell founded and led America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit focused on making young people our national priority.
When he stepped down as our chairman in May 2018, we honored Gen. Powell at a gala farewell dinner at the National Constitution Center. Current President Joe Biden was the keynote speaker and former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama delivered video tributes, while late President George H. W. Bush sent a written message to the more than 435 assembled guests from scores of countries.
Also sending video tributes to the general were late national security adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft and former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Condoleezza Rice, and Madeleine Albright, who serves as one of our trustees.
But the general said the highlight of his evening came when our Philadelphia fellow, Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, and a group of young people from Olney presented him with a framed copy of the mural they would dedicate to him at their high school.
For the young people who designed the mural, the best part of the project was that first they had to learn about Gen. Powell’s life. I gave them copies of two of his books and shared with them that, among other things, Gen. Powell was the only American leader since President Dwight D. Eisenhower whom both political parties would have welcomed as their presidential candidate. Imagine that today, I told them.
Gen. Powell couldn’t attend the dedication of the mural at the Olney school that fall. But he sent me a message that I read to the assembled predominantly Black and Latino students.
“I regret I couldn’t be with you today,” Gen. Powell wrote. “But I wanted all to know how proud I am of this mural dedicated to me … I was given a print of the mural and it is on the wall next to my desk.
“The students who did the painting have my heartfelt thanks … My greatest hope is that as people pass by the mural, they will note and reflect on my quote. Success in life comes not by magic, but by hard work. Remember and believe that — especially my young students.”
Somewhere in Philadelphia, Darontaye, Darwin, Rey’Na, and other young people like them remember and believe that now, as they mourn the nation’s loss of a great man they didn’t know existed.
George de Lama is president of Eisenhower Fellowships and a former correspondent and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.