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Colin Powell Interview (page: 2 / 9)
Former Secretary of State, United States of America
So when you were growing up in the South Bronx, you never imagined you'd be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
Colin Powell: I never dreamed of it.
What were you dreaming of back then? What were your goals?
Colin Powell: It's something of an embarrassing question for me, because I try to reflect back 45 years to those days. I'm not sure I had very clear goals, and they certainly weren't any long-range goals. I was a kid playing in the street. I wanted to grow up and be healthy. I wanted to excel at whatever I did. I wasn't a great student. I hoped I was learning enough in school to make me successful in whatever life held for me. Even when I got into college it wasn't clear what I was doing in college. Going to college was something that was expected in my family.
I suspect if it hadn't been for my family influence, and pressure of my parents, and the expectation of my parents that I would go to college, I probably wouldn't have gone. But there was that expectation. My sister had gone, the relatives had gone. And so, that got me into college.
How many brothers and sisters did you have?
Colin Powell: I have one sister. She's five-and-a-half years older. When we were growing up, she was sort of the star of the family, I was kind of the runt, the kid who was worried about a lot. Marilyn was always the good one and she did well in school and I didn't, and there was no doubt about where she was going to go, to college. She subsequently went into teaching, had a wonderful 40-year career as a teacher. I was always a question mark in the family.
Where did your parents come from, and how were they important to you?
Colin Powell: My parents were immigrants, they came from the island of Jamaica in the Caribbean. They came to the United States in the early 1920s. They came separately, didn't know each other there. They came to improve their lot. The economic situation in Jamaica at that time caused a lot of people to come to the United States, looking for a better life.
They met, they fell in love, were married, and then they had two children. My sister Marilyn and, of course, me. They're very important in our lives -- my sister's life and mine -- for the love they gave us, for the structure they provided and just for the inspiration that they gave to us, in the way they lived their lives.
Colin Powell: I've told many, many audiences of both parents and young people, but mostly parents -- children don't listen to what you tell them, they don't listen to the lectures. Well, they listen, patiently. What they really respond to, what they really do, is watch how you live your life, watch how you exercise your values. If they see worth in that, if they see merit in the way you are living your life, that's what influences children. I saw a great merit in the way my parents lived their life, and I never wished to displease them. I always wanted them to be proud of me. The worst days of my life were not when I got a spanking, but when I did something that disappointed my mother and my father.
Were they able to see your great success? Did they live to appreciate that?
Colin Powell: Not really. My father died a year before I made Brigadier General. So he saw me rise to the rank of Colonel. My mother was at my promotion ceremony to Brigadier General and she was enormously pleased. She died in 1984, before all of the excitement of the last years came about.
What books especially inspired you as a kid? Do you remember any in particular?
Colin Powell: No. You're dragging something out of me that my wife and children go nuts trying to cover up. And that is, I was not a terribly good student. I did not read a great deal when I was a youngster. The streets were a greater attraction to me in New York than was the New York Public Library system, or staying in my room reading anything but comic books.
I read what I was required to read by the public school system of the City of New York, and children's books. But I didn't really become an avid reader until I was an adult. I initially saw reading as something one had to do. It was only when I became an adult that I realized what a joy there was in reading, in learning, and what knowledge existed in books, and magazines, and newspapers. Now I'm constantly reading.
I understand you spent a lot of time at the Tiffany Theater, as well.
Colin Powell: The old Tiffany Theater was one of those theaters that every inner-city neighborhood had in those days, every few blocks apart. It was the place we all went to on Saturdays. I don't even know if it was open during the rest of the week, but on Saturday it was open for all of us kids.
With your grubby little hand clutching a dirty quarter, and with whatever food was necessary to last you for the rest of the day, you went to the Tiffany, and watched cowboy movie after cowboy movie, and threw things at each other, and generally misbehaved, I expect. It was a lot of fun.
When did you first become interested in a military career?
Colin Powell: It was only once I was in college, about six months into college when I found something that I liked, and that was ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps in the military. And I not only liked it, but I was pretty good at it. That's what you really have to look for in life, something that you like, and something that you think you're pretty good at. And if you can put those two things together, then you're on the right track, and just drive on.
[ Key to Success ] Passion
Once you've got something that you like, something you're good at, then do it for all it's worth. Be the very best you can be. Let nothing deter you, let nothing stand in your way, and go for it.
What was it about ROTC that attracted you?
Colin Powell: Perhaps the structure, perhaps the discipline, the sense of camaraderie among a group of young men who were similarly motivated. Maybe it was just the uniform. Who knows? I was only a little over 17 years old at the time.
I also grew up during a period of war. World War II occupied several years of my life. And as I entered my teenage years, the Korean War came along. So, by the time I was 17 years old, I'd seen about seven or eight years of war. As any young child would, I studied the tanks, and the planes and the guns. There was a fascination with all that. And I suspect that also moved me in the direction. But I think it was the structure, the discipline, the sense of camaraderie, the sense of adventure associated with being in the military.
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This page last revised on May 15, 2012 14:45 EST
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