Colin Powell & Alma Johnson
02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
When retired Gen. Colin Powell stepped up to the podium at an Alexandria, Va., hotel last November to announce that he would not run for President in 1996, the woman at his side was clearly part of the decision. "It was one that we reached together, as a team, as we have for 33 years," Alma Powell told reporters. "I am very supportive."
To many, it looked like Powell, 58, had given up the chance of a lifetime to please his wife. After all, Alma, also 58, had made it clear that she feared "crazy people out there" who might make her husband a target. But those who know the Powells say it wasn't that simple. "It's wrong to characterize it as a veto," says son Mike, 32. "It was more like a Kabuki dance. He'd sense if it is something she's not comfortable with, and if she's not, he's not. He can't go without her."
For the Powells, a system of mutual respect and understanding has gotten them through two wars and a score of relocations as he rose up the Army ranks. "They are best friends," says Powell aide Bill Smullen. "They both go about their business, but they are happy being around one another."
Their collaboration began in 1961, when an Army buddy of Powell's talked him into taking out his girlfriend's roommate. Powell was wary of the fix-up, but his anxiety was mild compared with Alma's. "I definitely don't go on blind dates with soldiers," said Alma Johnson, then working as an audiologist for the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing. When he arrived at her Boston apartment, however, dread gave way to delight. "He was simply the nicest person I had ever met," she says.
After eight months of steady dating, Powell was ordered to Vietnam, and he asked Alma to write to him. But at 24, she had no interest in being a pen pal. If their relationship wasn't going further, "we might as well end it now," she told him. "Her reaction forced me to ask myself something I had not faced so far," Powell recalled in his autobiography My American Journey. "How much did this woman mean to me?" The next day, Powell proposed—though without an engagement ring. "Alma must have loved me, because I was not a romantic suitor," he wrote. "I told her that we would be better off spending the money on household items." Two weeks later they wed at the Congregational Church in Alma's hometown of Birmingham, Ala.
Separated by war for the first year of their marriage, the Powells tried to protect each other. In his letters from Vietnam, Powell skimmed over the daily Viet Cong ambushes he faced. Alma, living with her parents in Birmingham, neglected to mention the anti-civil rights attacks that kept her father sitting up nights with a shotgun on his lap to defend the family. "Alma wanted her letters to support me with her love, not alarm me with her concerns," he wrote.
With the births of Michael in 1963, Linda in 1965 and Annemarie in 1970, Alma also took charge of the growing household. "I never saw her as secondary or subordinate," says Mike Powell. "In a military family, the spouse is forceful. We observed our mother running things a lot."
When Alma was diagnosed with depression in the mid-1980s, Colin stood firmly by her side. And during the long nights of the Gulf War, she routinely left kettles of hot soup on the stove to welcome her husband home after a stressful day at the Pentagon as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Since the general's retirement in 1993, the couple has tried to make up for all the years they were kept apart. They spend much of their time at home in McLean, Va., watching movies (Moonstruck is his favorite), playing with their two grandsons and just catching up. "We spend an hour reading the newspapers in the morning and having coffee together," says Powell. "I enjoy being home with my wife more than ever."
But they also know when to give each other space. Alma happily indulges her husband's passion for tinkering with his beloved 1966 Volvo in their garage, and he defers to his wife when they attend events for the charities she supports. Yet they are happiest when they are together. "Through all the fog," says son Mike, "at the end of the day they still look for each other."