When Colin Powell came to town: The 1995 Boe Forum

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — General Colin Powell, the first African American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Secretary of State, died of complications from COVID-19 according to a statement shared by his family on Facebook. A well-known figure on the national stage for decades, Powell took time in March of 1995 to visit the city of Sioux Falls for a forum held at what was then known as Augustana College.

The Boe Forum was held for the first time in March of 1995, and Powell was selected as the inaugural speaker.

“The Boe Forum began as an idea of Governor Nils Boe,” said Harry Thompson, Executive Director for the Center for Western Studies at Augustana.

Thompson said that Boe and his family created a trust with the intention that it would be used to bring notable speakers to Sioux Falls for the forum.

Powell proved to be a popular pick to launch the Boe Forum. Student newspaper the Augustana Mirror reported on March 9, 1995 that a full house was expected, and around 3,000 tickets had been claimed by Augustana students and the general public. According to Augustana Today, the alumni publication published at the time, “almost 3,700 people filled the Elmen Center to hear retired General Colin Powell.”

Powell speaks at the inaugural Boe Forum — Courtesy: Augustana University

The day after the forum, the Mirror ran a story titled “Powell offers insight on a changing world” in which the authors outlined topics discussed.

“Powell said that events like the fall of communism and the collapse of the Berlin Wall were realizations of what the world is like today. The election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and the Israeli-PLO peace accord are strong examples of the new world order, according to Powell,” they wrote.

This is a time of hope, of great promise and great expectation for the future.

Quote from Powell, published in the Augustana mirror
Powell speaks at the inaugural Boe Forum — Courtesy: Augustana University

The Mirror notes that Powell focused on the role of America in a post-Cold War world, describing the challenges he believed the country would face while calling for the U.S. to show leadership at home and abroad.

Powell speaks at the inaugural Boe Forum — Courtesy: Augustana University

Thompson has been involved in the forum since its inception. Discussing the choice to bring Powell in as the first-ever speaker, Thompson made note of the cultural weight with which Powell was endowed.

“He was immensely popular at the time,” began Thompson. “There were even rumors that he might made a bid for the presidency in 1996 — he had just retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington and had co-presided over a very successful Persian Gulf War.”

His street-creds were — so to speak — very, very high.

Thompson, discussing the influence of Colin Powell in 1995

Thompson explained that at the time there was a steering committee made up of interested and involved parties who were responsible with selecting the speaker.

There have now been 24 Boe Forums with more than 24 speakers. Thompson says each has used the same format (with the exception of last year’s which was held via video), with thousands gathering in the Elmen Center. He says the chance to hear these speakers, to see them in person and to be in the same room is a central element of the forum.

Asked what the experience was with Powell’s time on stage in Sioux Falls, Thompson says that while he does not remember much in terms of the specifics of the event more than 26-years ago, he does recall the way Powell and the crowd reacted to one another.

He was almost universally lauded by people — he felt the affection of the people of this area and he returned it.

Harry Thompson, Augustana University
Powell speaks at the inaugural Boe Forum — Courtesy: Augustana University

Asked if there was anything of particular noteworthy about Powell’s time at the Boe Forum, Thompson spoke about Powell’s image at the time, and the controversy that would surround him only six years later.

“General Powell was perhaps at the height of his popularity in the United States at that time,” said Thompson. “As a consequence of some of the debate and the security information he was given as Secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration and 9/11, he of course became embroiled in some of the issues about whether the United States should go to war.”

Thompson said that Powell had been clear throughout the ensuing years that he had received inaccurate information and Powell regretted that fact to his last day.

“But it was the security doctrine of the time,” Thompson said. “He did what he thought should be done — he was a man of duty, and a man of honor and we were very pleased that he was able to inaugurate the Boe Forum.”

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