Kelly recalls space career, shooting tragedy, fighting spirit of his wife Gabby Giffords at forum

Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, appearing with her astronaut husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, said simply at the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum Monday night, “I want to make the world a better place.”

The former U.S. congresswoman, severely wounded in the head in a January 2011 mass shooting outside a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz., also said the woman she wants to be is “better, stronger, tougher.”

The headliners for the two-day forum at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center blended a mix of astronaut-reminiscing by Kelly with a question-and-answer session that showed his wife is still struggling with everyday life after that fateful day in which six were slain and 12 others wounded by a deranged gunman.

Giffords recited the Pledge of Allegiance, hardly missing a word, with the assistance of about 1,000 people attending the event. It was followed by an introductory video of Kelly showing images of him in outer space, on one of four shuttle missions, to the beat of the song, “It’s a Beautiful Day,” by rock band U2.

The astronaut, who flew the final mission of the shuttle Endeavor while his wife was undergoing her final surgery, recalled growing up in New Jersey, the son of police officer parents.

“A classic underachiever” is how he described himself before going on to flight school in 1986, the year the Tom Cruise action movie, “Top Gun” made its debut.

He joked Cruise would have been better at the time, before driving home a creed that served him well: “Practice, persistence and the drive to never, never ever give up!”

Pacing the stage slowly in his blue flight jacket, Kelly described what it was like to feel the powerful thrust of a shuttle engine after weeks of preparation for its ultimate 17,500 mph climb into the sky.

“It’s like the hand of God coming down and grabbing you and lifting you off the planet,” he said. “It’s amazing to see this big blue marble floating in space, no strings attached.”

Then the astronaut, at one point tears welling in his eyes, talked of receiving that fateful call at home from Gifford’s chief of staff, informing him the U.S. House of Representatives member had received a gunshot blast to the side of her face, near her eye.

“Did this actually happen? Did I actually get this phone call? Maybe I imagined it,” Kelly recalled of that moment, which set off a chain of events, including a fast flight from Houston, Texas, to Tucson, at one point watching national media on TV aboard the plane reporting, erroneously, that Gabby had died. He eventually learned she was actually in surgery.

“The media should not pronounce people dead. They should leave that to doctors,” said Kelly, who would quiz the medical staff at the hospital about what should be done to stabilize his wife.

He said her will to “fight, fight, fight” and her mantra, “Deny the acceptance of failure,” was evident in the days and weeks and months following the ordeal, even as they attended the sentencing of the man who shot her and the others that horrible day.

“Gabby’s life has been changed forever. Things she used to find so easy to do are now so difficult. And some she still can’t do,” said Kelly before proclaiming, “Her spirit is strong as ever.”

As expected, the ephasia that keeps her motor skills from allowing sentences to roll off the tip of her tongue, also kept Gifford’s answers brief in the Q-and-A portion of the presentation.

Asked what her five-year goal is, she responded, “Travel around the world with me ... with you,” pointing at her husband, then flashing a big smile and giggling slightly because of the slip.

Asked how she would describe America in 2013, she said simply, “I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic.”

That closed the evening, with Giffords once again drawing a standing ovation upon leaving the stage and Kelly remarking, “God Bless America.”

One other notable moment during the first day of the forum was the awarding of the Blanchard Award for Business and Ethical Leadership to Robert Scott Jepson Jr., a businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist from Savannah, Ga. The award is named after the forum’s namesake, the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Synovus Financial Corp.

The forum, hosted by The Leadership Institute at Columbus State University, continues today with Pastor Tom Mullins of Christ Fellowship Church in Florida, Fort Benning post commander Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Yum! Brands CEO David Novak, Internet marketing expert Seth Godin and Alan Mulally, chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Co. Blanchard also will address the event.