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Commencement

“Be Bold, Be Courageous, Be Your Best!”

5.27.15

Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly

Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly

Photograph by Martha Stewart/ courtesy of the Harvard Law School

In a speech for Harvard Law School’s Class Day ceremony, retired NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy pilot Mark Kelly readily revealed that he himself was “no academic all-star”—and was even “kind of a crappy” airman—when he nevertheless decided to fly into space someday. Mars eluded him, but he did go on four other missions: strapped into a rocket that accelerated from zero to 17,500 miles per hour in just eight minutes, he recalled, he and his colleagues orbited for a few weeks, perceiving a surreal earth as “a big blue marble floating in the dark.”

Aptitude, however, did not propel this ambitious plan, he said, “just as many of you aren’t getting your degrees tomorrow just because you’re smart.” Rather, “We all get to where we get because we work our butts off, and because we had a goal.” Kelly and his wife, former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, shared the dais in Holmes Field; he gave the bulk of the speech because it is physically hard for her to speak, but she rose to the podium to give an impassioned conclusion: “Find your purpose and go with it! Be bold, be courageous, be your best!”

Hard work. Bravery. The couple has lived these adjectives daily while meeting immense challenges in the wake of the 2011 assassination attempt on Giffords. The congresswoman was meeting with Tucson constituents in a Safeway parking lot when she and 18 others were shot; six of them died. Since then, Kelly told the crowd, Giffords has re-learned “to walk, to eat, and to do everything with her left hand—and do things that you and I take for granted, like speaking.”

In 2013 the couple founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, an issue-advocacy organization and political action committee focused on reducing gun violence. “This country is known for using its determination and ingenuity to solve problems, big and small,” she wrote in a USA Today op-ed that year. “But when it comes to protecting our communities from gun violence, we’re not even trying—and for the worst of reasons.”

Despite the gunshot wound to her head, Kelly said in his speech, his wife returned to the U.S. House less than seven months after the attack, to vote on the federal debt ceiling. “Now I have seen some courageous things in my time,” he added, “but I have never seen something like Gabby, barely out of the hospital, going to the House floor to do her job.”

Giffords resigned her seat in 2012 to focus on her continued recovery, but when stepping down she also vowed to return and “work for Arizona and this great country.” Making speeches and advocating for reforms of gun laws are among the couple’s activities (although gun reform was not mentioned in Kelly’s speech). “As you move on from Harvard Law School, Gabby and I encourage you to be the kind of people who make things happen,” Kelly said. “We hope you continue [HLS’s] tradition of serving others and your community in any way you can…We are asking you to seize this chance because second chances don’t come around very often.”

Kelly flew the first of his four NASA missions in 2001 aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, the same one he commanded on its final flight in May 2011. Less than two years after his wife’s injury, he retired from NASA. “The road ahead will bring you some unpredictable moments,” he pointedly told the soon-to-be lawyers. “And at times it will challenge you beyond what you can imagine.”

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