Woman of Influence

updated 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE SETTING WAS A LAVISH Washington gala for CARE, the international relief fund, and Alma Powell, wife of Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was scheduled to offer some welcoming remarks. On her way to the dais, she paused to give her husband his orders: "Dear," she whispered, then smoothly handed him her pocket-book. The general, his four stars glinting on the shoulders of his military tuxedo, dutifully tucked the bag under his arm and stood at attention. "There are many ways to serve," he whispered to a grinning friend.

Of course, the way many of his admirers wanted Powell to serve was from the White House, as the nation's Commander in Chief. But the quietly forceful Alma, 58, never warmed to the idea of a presidential campaign. Even before the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (see page 164), she expressed concern about "crazy people out there" jeopardizing her husband's safety. "It brings those fears back up to the surface," said her close friend Elayne Bennett, wife of former Secretary of Education William Bennett, shortly before Powell made his announcement not to seek the Republican nomination. "It affects everyone whose husband is in politics when something like this happens." Mindful of the racial attacks in the 1960s that earned her Alabama hometown the nickname Bombingham, Powell knew her husband faced even greater risks because of his race. And recent media reports of her decade-long treatment for depression, which she controls with medication, provided a pungent taste of the kind of scrutiny, and innuendo, a campaign would inspire. Said Michael Powell, 32, the eldest of the couple's children: "She's been around this town long enough to know that it's sport for people to come after people."

Still, said Michael of her reservations about a Powell candidacy, "it's not a veto kind of thing. It's truly a mutual choice." The night before Colin's press conference, the family gathered at the Powells' three-story home in McLean, Va., for one last discussion. Powell, who said at his press conference that he lacked a "passion and commitment" for politics, had said throughout his months-long deliberations that whatever he did, "we will do as a team."

That is, in fact, what the couple has done for 33 years together. As Colin rose through the officer corps, Alma shepherded the family through nearly a score of moves around the U.S. "Each time, I unpacked everything and hung the pictures on the wall and made it home," she says. While her husband was facing enemy fire in Vietnam, Alma wrote letters of love and comfort from her parents' home in Birmingham, never mentioning the civil rights battles that forced her father to sit up nights with a shotgun on his lap, fearful of an attack on his family. Says Colin's sister, Marilyn Berns: "Any woman who comes through as an Army wife is a real trouper."

First as a child and later as an Army wife in the racially segregated South, Alma learned strength under fire. Pat Schwar, whose husband, Joe, had served with Colin in Germany in the late '50s, remembers the newlywed Powells searching for a place to live in the Fort Bragg, N.C., area in 1962, only to discover that all the adequate housing was for whites only. Although the Powells eventually moved in with the Schwars, who are white—making do with their sons' bunk beds—life around Fort Bragg was never easy. "I'd say, 'Let's play miniature golf,' or 'Let's get a Coke,' and Alma and Colin would say, 'You go ahead, we can't do that,' " recalls Schwar. "Alma was never enraged. She would say, 'Pat, that's the way things are in the South, and you've got to be calm and accept it until things can be changed.' "

Alma faced such bias much of her life. But as the daughter of Robert "R.C." Johnson, a high school principal, and his wife, Mildred, a leader in the black Girl Scouts, she enjoyed a respected position in the black community. Always a serious student, she graduated from high school early, at 16. Friend and schoolmate Wardell Henderson remembers her as "very smart, quiet, very pretty too." Says Henderson: "She was classy."

At Nashville's Fisk University, she earned a B.A. in speech and drama in 1957, later heading to Boston's Emerson College, where she studied audiology and drove a van around town administering hearing tests. She met Powell on a blind date. "He was simply the nicest person I had ever met," Alma says. After eight months of dating, Powell told Alma he was going to Vietnam and asked her to write. At 24, she wasn't interested in a pen pal. If their relationship wasn't moving forward, she said, she was moving on. ("I wasn't bluffing," she later insisted.) The next day, he proposed.

Since Colin's retirement in 1993, the couple often entertain their three children—Michael is a D.C. lawyer; Linda, 30, a New York City-based actress; Annemarie, 25, a production assistant for ABC's Nightline—and Michael's two sons, Jeffrey, 6, and Bryan, 1, in their $1.3 million home, bought with Colin's $6 million advance for My American Journey. "Alma is perfectly content never to see her face in another magazine or go to another fancy dinner and sit next to some king," says Michael.

Now, with the presidential decision behind her, she can concentrate on her favorite causes. She serves on the boards of CARE and the Kennedy Center and often meets with young girls through Best Friends, a program that encourages sexual abstinence and is run by her pal Elayne Bennett. Bennett calls Powell a powerful role model for the girls and recalls her pointing out how her exclusion from the segregated University of Alabama led her to study in Boston, where she met Colin. "Because I had to leave and go places where I could be educated," she quotes Powell as saying, "it turned into a wonderful future for me."

CYNTHIA SANZ
LINDA KRAMER in Washington and KATHY KEMP in Birmingham

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