CODY — Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson has many fond memories of the late U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, but none more prominent than the way he heard Democrat Robert Byrd, a 51-year senator from West Virginia, speak of Powell after he heard him give a speech.
“He turned and said to me, ‘That is the most impressive man I’ve ever met in my political career,’” Simpson said.
Powell passed away on Monday due to complications from COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated but had already been hospitalized with multiple myeloma and early stages of Parkinson’s disease.
Although the two couldn’t have come from more different upbringings – Simpson in rural Cody and Powell in the densely urban South Bronx of New York City – they both felt an early desire to serve their country and participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at their respective colleges.
“He was a patriot,” Simpson said.
Powell is one of the most decorated U.S. military officers of all time, rising to the rank of a four-star general and leading the U.S. military operations in the Gulf War. Simpson also served in the military with the Army in Germany from 1955-56.
But it was on Capitol Hill where the two connected, often attending events and club meetings together. Although they worked in different branches of the federal government, the two routinely found themselves working together and in the same political spheres as Simpson was the majority and minority whip of the Senate from 1985-1995, and Powell, a cabinet member during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from 1983-1993.
Powell would go on to be the first black secretary of state under President George W. Bush in 2001. It was during this four-year tenure he suffered what is widely regarded as the main blight on his career, when he gave a speech at the United Nations advocating for entering the Iraq War based on faulty intelligence.
“He was very hurt and disappointed when he had to go to the U.N. and say there were weapons of mass destruction,” Simpson said. “He didn’t show the bitterness.”
Outside of work, Simpson’s wife Ann and Powell’s wife Alma became close and worked together on the Ford’s Theatre Society Board of Governors.
“She is very reserved and very lovely,” Ann Simpson said. “She was very beloved and admired in D.C.”
Al Simpson remembered a night the couples went to see “Black Angels over Tuskegee” at Ford’s Theatre, a play about the first black pilots in the U.S. military during World War II. Simpson said Powell was moved by the performance.
Ann Simpson also remembered joking with Powell, who she said was very socially adept, about the pronunciation of his first name, a name shared by one of the Simpsons’ sons.
“Our Colin is from Scottish heritage and his name is from English descent,” Ann said.
In 1998, Powell presented Al Simpson the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.
“He was a true man of service,” Ann Simpson said.