Awards & Events

Kelly, Giffords Inspire Audience at Lecture

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords urged the audience at a packed Stambaugh Auditorium to get involved with their community.

Giffords was the victim of a 2011 assassination attempt that left six others dead, an attack from which she is still recovering. She and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, spoke last night as part of Youngstown State University’s Skeggs Lecture Series.

Their appearance came in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead.

Giffords, who criticized “gun industry advocates [and] the politicians paid to defend it” on Twitter following the Valentine’s Day shooting, offered a message of hope at the conclusion of Kelly’s speech.

“It’s been a long haul but I’m optimistic,” said Giffords, who suffers from aphasia as a result of her injuries. She received a standing ovation when she walked on stage. Although physical therapy, speech therapy and yoga are hard, her spirit remains as strong as ever, she insisted.

“I’m fighting to make the world a better place, and you can, too,” she urged. “Get involved with your community. Be a leader. Set an example. Be passionate. Be courageous. Be your best.”

Kelly, speaking with reporters after meeting with students at YSU’s Ward Beecher Planetarium earlier in the day, pointed to the need for stricter gun laws, something he and his wife have advocated for since her shooting.

Kelly noted that both he and his wife are gun owners, and 10 of the 20 worst mass shootings in U.S. history have taken place in the last decade. He blamed the lack meaningful gun legislation on “a political system with a lot of corporate money” that prevents members of Congress from doing what they might otherwise think is right but isn’t “politically tenable” for them.

He criticized a system that allows “dangerously mentally ill” individuals and suspected terrorists to purchase guns with no restrictions, further questioning why the 19-year-old alleged shooter in Wednesday’s attack was permitted to purchase a semiautomatic weapon when he couldn’t even buy a handgun or drink alcohol.

“We know what works. We know what will make communities safer from gun violence,” he said. “We can see it just by looking around the 50 states, places that have stronger gun laws have less gun violence, significantly less.”

Some states – Massachusetts, for example – require a background check before purchasing a gun at a gun show. Other states, including Texas and Arizona, don’t have that requirement.

He acknowledged he was surprised that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 children and six adults were killed, did not become a turning point in the gun control debate.

“Politics got in the way,” he lamented. “The saddest thing is there are some significant steps we can take without infringing on the Second Amendment rights of responsible people. … I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment, but we can’t be stupid.”

During the Skeggs Lecture lecture, Kelly recounted finding about his wife’s shooting, as well as his experiences as a naval aviator during Operation Desert Storm and as an astronaut. He wasn’t the best pilot early on, he noted, but didn’t give up.

“How good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become,” he said.

Kelly described the Space Shuttle as “the most amazing space ship we’ve ever built” but “the worst airplane I have ever flown,” while a colleague characterized it as “a butterfly bolted to a bullet.” Before retiring a few years ago, he flew four space shuttle missions, including Endeavor’s final mission four months after Gifford’s shooting.

“When my wife, Gabby, entered Congress in 2007, I thought I had the risky job,” he said. “She was the one who nearly lost her life serving her country.”

At one point during Gifford’s recovery, he recalled, he questioned whether he had the patience for what he saw was going to be an “incredibly slow process.”

He then thought back to an experience five years earlier, when they were attending an event where a medal that had been flown on one of Kelly’s missions was to be presented to professor Stephen Hawking. Impatient with the disabled physicist’s apparent lack of response when he attempted to communicate with him. Kelly said Giffords pushed him aside, knelt in front of Hawking and spoke with him, getting a response about five minutes later “in that voice we all know.

“Giffords gave me a lesson about patience,” he said.

In addition to being “the biggest supporter” of his career as an astronaut, Giffords was also a big supporter of NASA and science in general, he said. When she joined the U.S. House of Representatives, she requested to be assigned to its Science and Technology Committee, an appointment Kelly said no one seeks. She eventually chaired the Space and Aeronautics Committee, which oversees NASA and its budget.

Giffords, who underwent extensive surgeries, keeps a piece of her skull that was removed in a blue Tupperware container in the freezer. She brings it out to show visitors, which “really freaks some people out,” Kelly said.

“It demonstrates the power of the human spirit, how people can fight to survive, fight to come back. and at least not to take themselves too seriously, at least in Gabby’s case,” he said.

After talking to students at the planetarium, Kelly fielded questions on topics ranging from radiation protection on the shuttle and the impact on space travel on the human body to his early ambition to be the first person to set foot on Mars.

“Just seeing the Earth as a round ball is pretty incredible,” he said.

In a brief interview with local reporters, Kelly faulted President Donald Trump’s proposed budget that calls for eliminating funding for the International Space Station by 2025, which is “coming up pretty quickly,” he said.

“It would be really hard to operate without U.S. government funding” and relying entirely on commercial resources, even though the station is transitioning to a hub of commercial activity, he said. “We’re just getting to the point where it’s getting pretty exciting from a commercial perspective but to cut off the funds, I think, would be a disaster for the space station.”

The couple impressed those attending the evening lecture.

“Hearing Gabby speak was so inspirational,” said Samantha Turner of Youngstown. “Her story is just bone chilling, what she had to go through, but it was so inspirational to know what she was able to persevere through. We need that inspiration.”

Mark Smith of Salem called Kelly one of the best public speakers he has ever seen, “Gabby is just such an inspiring story,” he added.

Jim Gue also praised Kelly as one of the most dynamic speakers he has ever seen.

“His story is pretty relatable to a lot of us who weren’t great students who also aspired for more,” he said. “I wanted to be the first guy on Mars like he did, but he got much farther falling short than I ever could have dreamed of,. But he accomplished some incredible things falling short of that.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.