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The Main Thing [Close-Up / City of Fairfax Schools]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story, July-August 2006

WIT AND WISDOM FROM COLIN POWELL: Fairfax High’s 2006 Graduation Speaker

“I was nearly late today because I was at a summit on global poverty in downtown DC this morning with George Bush,” Fairfax High’s celebrity keynote graduation speaker, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, explained to the audience on June 15. “I kept looking at my watch, and as I was about to leave the President asked if I had a minute. I said, um, no.”

Powell joked that he did suggest to Bush that he hop into his Corvette and come to graduation, but the Secret Service took a dim view of that plan. “I don’t think they thought it would be a good idea to have the President tearing down Rt. 50 with me as I rushed to get here on time.”

On a more serious note, Powell shared with the audience some of the wisdom he has acquired throughout his prestigious career.


“It was 52 years ago that I graduated from high school in Brooklyn, NY,” he said. “I wasn’t a great student. I wasn’t the best kid on the block. But when the principal put that diploma into my hand, I knew I had accomplished something important.”

After a few false starts at the City College of New York, Powell said he found the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and four years later, in 1958, he graduated at the top of his class with the rank of cadet colonel in the U.S. Army, the highest rank in the ROTC.

“I was lucky to have found something I wanted to do with my life at such a young age, for the greatest success is knowing you are doing something worthwhile. And that is up to you. Your parents have the highest expectations for you, and so do your teachers. They have prepared you for what lies ahead. Now it is up to you. You must not let them down.”

Powell talked a bit about his own parents, Jamaican immigrants who stressed the importance of education and personal achievement. He didn’t recite his impressive resume — of his years spent in Vietnam where he was injured twice and won the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and later the Legion of Merit. Nor did he talk about his work under presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

He did note that throughout his career he has had the privilege to witness dramatic changes in the world, and said the biggest challenge facing the Class of 2006 would be to not just solve national problems, but global ones.

“Remember the conference on global poverty that I mentioned earlier?” he asked. “This is an example of one issue your generation will need to come to terms with. Democracy is spreading around the world, and the challenges you will face will be far different than the ones I had to deal with half a century ago.”

In closing, Powell offered this: “Live life with virtue and values, have physical and moral courage, build a strong character that emanates in every direction, and always, always have a sense of shame — for shame is that little transistor in your head that will help you know when you are going down the wrong path.”

Above all, Powell encouraged the students to be kind.” Always show more kindness than might seem necessary, for the person receiving it just may need those words or actions more than you realize.”

Indeed, he promised, this is a world filled with hope.

“Seize life. Meet the challenges. Go forth and prosper, and raise strong families. Most importantly, know that the only thing you will truly leave behind is your good reputation, and a strong foundation for the next generation.”


In fact, it was a chance meeting between Powell and FHS Class of 2006 President Kirk Benedict that brought the General to graduation this year.

Kirk told the audience that when he was in 4th grade, his teacher asked students to write an essay about the one person they’d like most to meet. Kirk wrote about Colin Powell.
“Then he turned up in my classroom, and when he reached out his hand to shake mine, I just froze,” Kirk notes, chuckling at the memory. “I had a million things to say, but nothing would come out of my mouth.”

That meeting stuck with him, though, and thereafter Kirk closely followed Powell’s career.

“When I entered middle school, he becomes a four-star General. When I got to high school, he became Secretary of State. He has remained my hero, and I am very honored to say that he is also my friend. I couldn’t be more proud that he agreed to speak at my high school graduation.”


Pride and joy also were the theme of the comments made by FHS principal Dr. Scott Brabrand: “I’ll say again today what you have heard me say countless times: ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’”

What exactly is the main thing?

“One student asked me recently to define what I mean, and today I will tell you,” he shared. “Well, for some people in the audience, your attendance at graduation after 13 years of education is the main thing. For others, the honor and privilege to have Colin Powell as our keynote speaker is the main thing. For me, you are the main thing. Your hopes, your dreams, and your education to achieve those hopes and dreams are, and will always be, the main thing at FHS.”

Dr. Brabrand noted that his first year as principal of Fairfax High has been the highlight of his professional life.

“From the first day, you welcomed me with open arms and open hearts. I will never forget that, and I will never forget you. I thank you, and I congratulate you.”


More Close-Up / Fairfax City Schools Articles

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• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.