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Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly share their story

The former U.S. Representative and her husband, the U.S. Navy captain and astronaut, deliver the 14th annual Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords stands alongside her husband, U.S. Navy Captain Mark Kelly,
Gabrielle Giffords stands alongside her husband, Mark Kelly, while delivering the Warschaw Distinguished Lecture. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

Compared to his wife, Mark Kelly thought he had the risky job: combat pilot and astronaut. Instead it was Gabrielle Giffords, the former U.S. representative, who nearly died serving her country when a would-be assassin shot her and killed six others at a community event.

“What happened that day would certainly become the biggest challenge we would ever face,” Kelly said as the couple spoke to more than 500 people at Town & Gown on March 8. The two delivered the 14th annual Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture, which focuses on how Jewish life and culture has shaped the lives of political figures.

I am still fighting to make the world a better place and you can, too.

Gabrielle Giffords

“My spirit is strong as ever,” said Giffords, descendent of a long line of Lithuanian rabbis. “I am still fighting to make the world a better place and you can, too.”

Kelly, a retired astronaut and U.S. Navy captain, has spent more than 50 days in space and is one of only two people who have visited the International Space Station four times. Giffords ran in six elections in her home state and won them all; during her tenure in the U.S. Congress from 2007 to 2012, she championed energy independence and the needs of military families and veterans.

On Jan. 8, 2011, she survived a gunshot wound to the head as she was meeting constituents at an outdoor “Congress on Your Corner” event in a Tucson suburb. Critically injured, Giffords continues to undergo physical and speech therapy.

“It’s been a long, hard haul, but I’m getting better. I’m working hard – lots of therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy and yoga, too,” she said, standing at the Town & Gown podium unaided.

After the shooting, Kelly’s faith in his wife was unshakeable.

I thought, ‘If anybody can take this on and overcome it, it was Gabby Giffords.’

Mark Kelly

“I thought, ‘If anybody can take this on and overcome it, it was Gabby Giffords,’” he said.

Proving him right

Giffords proved her husband right: Just four months after nearly losing her life, Giffords flew to Florida to watch her husband lead the shuttle Endeavour’s final voyage. Two months later, she insisted on being in Congress to vote on a bill to raise the debt ceiling.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Gabby,” Kelly said. “After everything she went through, to be there one more time to have her voice heard – I think I think a New Jersey newspaper may have described it best. They said ‘After months of rancor and pettiness, one small woman brought Washington to its knees. We can compromise on how we fund America, we cannot compromise on how we define America. That definition does not require words. Just look at Gabby Giffords.’ ”

Responsible solutions

After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in which 20 children and six teachers lost their lives, Giffords and Kelly started Americans for Responsible Solutions. The organization, dedicated to keeping Americans safe though improved gun control laws

 such as a universal background check for gun buyers, now has some 800,000 supporters.

Kelly said Giffords’ determination to take action on gun laws came about “not because she was injured in that horrific attack in January 2011, but because Gabby is about service. When she saw that 20 little kids needlessly died in their classroom, she thought that maybe, just maybe, she could be a little bit helpful in trying to prevent that happening again.”

“Eighty percent of all kids in the industrialized world who die of gun violence die in the U.S.,” Kelly said. “2015 is the year more children will die from gun violence than from car accidents.

“We rank with countries like Iraq and Yemen, Mexico and Brazil when you look at death rates from gun violence,” he said, noting that both he and his wife are gun owners and strong supporters of the Second Amendment.

Kelly also regaled a rapt audience with courageous tales of his time as a pilot in the U.S. Navy. Describing flying into Iraq on his first bombing mission in January 1991, he recounted how it felt to be under attack from anti-aircraft missiles and spoke of a disastrous lack of communication that almost cost him his life.

In his introduction, USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay said Giffords and Kelly embody the true spirit of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — “making the world a better place,” or fixing what is broken in our society.

“Congresswoman Giffords and Capt. Kelly are the ideal role models for all of our students and for everyone in this room, this country and in the world,” Kay said. “They are a team composed of two extremely tenacious, successful and selfless individuals who are just as proud of each other’s victories as they are supportive of each other’s hardships.”

Kelly said Giffords’ ambition to serve her community as a member of Congress was part of her goal to strive for tikkun olam.

“Often one of the last things Gabby will say to me before going off for therapy or a doctor’s appointment … [is] ‘Fight, fight, fight,’ ” Kelly said. “She reminds me every day to not give up, to work hard and to move ahead.”

A debt of thanks

Interim Provost Michael Quick, senior vice president for academic affairs and professor of biological sciences, thanked the Warschaw family for their long support of USC’s academic mission and vision.

 Hope Warschaw, after whose parents the endowment creating in the lecture series is named, presented Giffords and Kelly with USC sweatshirts.

My parents always thought there was something in Jewish culture that led people to participate in civic life.

Hope Warschaw

“My parents always thought there was something in Jewish culture that led people to participate in civic life,” Warschaw said. “My mother, in particular, loved to hear people’s stories, where they came from and how they got to be who they were. So to continue this lecture series, I thought, was very important.”

Saying that few speakers can be as moving on personal and intellectual levels as Giffords and Kelly, Quick said the couple stand for so many of the values fostered and furthered at USC.

“I tell our students I hope one of the lessons we teach them and that they learn while at college is to be resilient in the face of adversity. I can only hope they approach any adversity they experience with the same grace, honor and resiliency shown by Rep. Giffords and Capt. Kelly,” Quick said. “We say ‘Fight on’ a lot at this university. I think I finally understand what that phrase really means.”

The annual lecture series established by the late Carmen and Louis Warschaw with an endowment gift in 1999 offers a unique chance to peek into the experience of esteemed political figures and how Jewish life and culture inform their lives. Hosted by USC Dornsife’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, the lecture has enlisted past speakers such as Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

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