UNIVERSITY PARK — The crowd in Eisenhower Auditorium was brought to its feet in applause more than once Monday night during the motivational speeches given by Capt. Mark Kelly and former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The couple came to the university as a part of the Student Programming Association’s Distinguished Speaker Series and spent the evening focusing on Kelly’s life and career with NASA as well as Giffords’ recovery from head wounds suffered in a 2011 assassination attempt.
“It’s been a long hard road, but it’s getting better,” Giffords said. “My spirit is as strong as ever.”
Giffords suffers from aphasia due to the brain injuries from the shooting. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, it is a disorder caused by damage to the part of the brain where language is found and often causes issues with speech, reading and writing. Giffords did not speak until the end of the event.
Her story, instead, was told from the perspective of her husband.
“Sometimes bad things happen to good people,” Kelly said during a news conference prior to the event.
He also said that it wasn’t after the attack on Giffords that the couple really decided they needed to help make a difference in regard to gun violence, but rather after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“We want to try to help,” Kelly said, when discussing what he thinks Congress needs to do about issues of gun violence .
The event began with a short video that opened with news footage after the 2011 shooting and ended with videos from Kelly’s time in space. The clips were set to the U2 song “Beautiful Day,” something that Kelly later made reference to in a joke about Giffords’ crush on lead singer Bono.
Kelly spent nearly the entire presentation speaking, beginning with his younger years and how he came to want to explore space.
He said that his mother was someone he looked up to, and although for a while he struggled in school, his mom’s successes helped him focus. Kelly told the audience of how his mother became one of the first female police officers in New Jersey in the 1970s.
“This was the first time in my life that I saw the power of a goal and a plan,” Kelly said in reference to his mom’s determination.
He also talked about meeting Giffords and how, unlike himself, she was an “overachiever,” and that like his own mother, she was a woman who had big plans.
Kelly talked of his time spent in training and how these events molded him, but said that while he always considered his job to be dangerous, he would later realize that Giffords’ was the one whose life was nearly lost.
“I thought I had the risky job. As it would turn out, my wife Gabby would almost lose her life (in her job),” Kelly said.
He went on to discuss the experience of finding out about the shooting and the fact that Giffords had been shot in the head. Kelly said hearing this news brought him back to an ambulance call he ran before joining the Navy, where a young man was killed by a gunshot wound to the head.
Kelly said he worried about handling the shooting and Giffords’ recovery, having never considered himself a patient man. He said that it was Giffords who taught him how to be patient years earlier, something he said he loved.
“I really appreciate that it was a lesson (I learned) from Gabby,” Kelly said.
Giffords appeared at the event’s close, bringing a standing ovation from the audience.
She said that others can help to make the world a better place, just as she is trying to do.
“Be bold, be courageous, be your best,” Giffords said, before thanking the audience and exiting the stage.
While much of the lecture focused on Kelly’s life and what his wife’s shooting changed in them and taught them, it did address gun violence briefly, during the question and answer period and news conference.
Some of those in attendance said that they expected the event to revolve more around the issue of gun violence.
State College area resident Ray Najjar said that he thought the speech was engaging, interesting and inspiring. He added that he thought it would be more political, but regardless enjoyed the speech.
“I was expecting to hear more about that but I didn’t leave disappointed,” Najjar said.