A New Mission
To the casual observer, he is the dutiful husband supporting his wife, a courageous congresswoman shot nearly three years ago by a deranged gunman.
The story of Gabrielle Giffords, the Tucson Democrat who was shot in the head on a Saturday in January 2011 in an attack that killed six others, is well known. Perhaps less public are the accomplishments of her husband, an Irishman from the gritty Jersey town of Orange, who went from an ambulance volunteer in some of New Jersey’s toughest neighborhoods to flying sorties in the Persian Gulf theater under George H.W. Bush and becoming one of the premier astronauts of America’s space program.
Kelly appeared with his wife on the opening day of the conference. As Giffords continues to recover and build on her speech, her words were few and sincere. “I am working hard … a lot of speech therapy,” she said to an appreciative of audience. “I am fighting to make the world a better place.”
And indeed, Giffords, a moderate Democrat who with Kelly have since founded a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions, remains a powerful symbol of bipartisanship and political moderation—qualities sorely lacking in today’s national politics of shutdowns and verbal body-slams.
While Giffords is the woman who exceeded expectations from her childhood years, Kelly shared his path as one replete with challenges and an emerging sense of purpose, a young man not interested in academics who would soon find his way. And as the 49-year-old father of two girls shared his tale, he buffered it with lessons applicable to a business audience:
▶ Groupthink: A prominent pilot who shuttled to space four times, Kelly shared a pivotal lesson not from his tenure on Endeavour or Discovery, but rather in the aftermath of the 2003 Columbia disaster, in which he said he literally collected the bodies of several of his friends. The explosion caused a laborious, sober investigation. There were sayings on the wall, Kelly recalled, including, “None of us is as dumb as all of us.”
The point? Groupthink can lead to poor decisions that no member of the group would individually support. This perspective took on added poignancy when, shortly after Giffords was shot, the medical team proposed a complex surgical procedure to her brain. Kelly surveyed the doctors involved. But instead of asking the lead surgeon first, he sought out the opinion of a young woman, an ophthalmology student.
▶ Patience: Aiding a loved one in chronic distress is a challenge few others can truly appreciate. The loss of normalcy and the absence of consistency can undercut the finest of virtue. Kelly is no different. Giffords’ injury caused aphasia, damage to the brain that affects speech. “I was not sure I could be patient enough,” said Kelly.
Would he have the patience to help Giffords with a recovery that has no time limit? He thought back five years earlier when the two met Stephen Hawking, the brilliant English physicist and cosmologist who was diagnosed with ALS when he was 21 and today communicates via a speech-generating device.
Kelly said he briefly tried to engage Hawking, but to no avail. Then Giffords approached. “Gabby came to him, bent down, looked him eye to eye and asked, ‘How are you?’" She waited. Five minutes later, the device responded, “Thank you. I am fine.”