She didn’t address her new organization Americans for Responsible Solutions, or the Newtown school shootings, or her road to recovery. Her two-minute speech was about the graduates, and she said all that she needed to.
Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords delivered the commencement address at Bard College’s 153rd graduation ceremony on Sat., May 25. And although it was a rainy, dreary day in Annandale, Giffords’ short speech in a crowded tent was stirring.
Wearing a gown for the honorary degree she was receiving, Giffords formed each word with great care.
“Graduates, your future shines bright. Find your purpose and go for it. Starting tomorrow, you can change the world,” she said.
At one point, she had to stop and start the sentence again. The crowd remained hushed. The tent was full; dozens stood outside in the drizzle.
“The nation’s counting on you to create, to lead, to innovate. But today we celebrate you,” she concluded. “Be bold, be creative, be your best.”
And then she waved, her presence speaking more than her words allowed. The audience members stood up and cheered.
The commencement address was partly a result of Giffords’ former chief of staff, Pia Carusone, who graduated from Bard in 2003. Carusone said that she has been singing Bard’s praises to Giffords since she first began working for her in 2009.
“[She’s] really excited to be able to do this,” Carusone said in an earlier interview.
Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, the retired NASA astronaut, was wearing full military dress and delivered his part of the commencement address before Giffords did. He formed his words with seasoned certainty, pride perhaps.
“So, you know often we hear these stories, almost fables about astronauts. The golden boys, the whiz kids, the chosen ones. Well, my brother Scott and I? We weren’t that,” he said.
“As you embark on the next phase of your own lives and start new careers and new endeavors, please remember that I started out struggling in the beginning of my career and ended up commanding a rocket ship into space,” he said.
The former space shuttle commander had just spoken that morning to students and parents at Red Hook High School, where he talked about space and the future of the space program.
But in his Bard speech, Kelly came to the part of the story that captivated and shocked the world in 2011, when Giffords was shot in the head while holding a campaign event in Tucson, Arizona. It was the moment that a majority of the audience had been waiting for.
“Two years ago,” Kelly said, “… Carusone called me at home in Houston, Texas…Very simply, she said, ‘Mark, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Gabby’s been shot.’ ”
He then recounted her difficult recovery from the head wound, adding “You may have all seen dramatic moments from Gabby’s life on TV and in the newspapers, but trust me, there ere even more brave moments that occurred privately.”
As Kelly praised his wife from the podium, she sat behind him with an unchanging, serene yet powerful expression on her face. He lauded her determination, her ambition, her strength.
“I didn’t know courage and bravery until I saw what my wife went through,” Kelly said.
Then he introduced her: “So now, on this day of possibility, a day when you celebrate everything you’ve accomplished, and on a day when you dream the big dreams, let me introduce you to the most determined and courageous person I know. A person who does not fear or even acknowledge failure, who takes joy in the pursuit of personal and political challenges, who speaks with extraordinary bravery, and who inspires me every single day.”
Kelly then escorted Giffords to the podium, and she gave her remarks to the reverent audience.
Kelly had encouraged the graduates to emulate Giffords’ bravery and determination. But her relatively fragile state came as a surprise to many. One graduate said he was close to tears during her speech, and another suggested that her television appearances may well be heavily edited. It was clear to many that while Giffords is recovering, she has a long way to go.
After the speeches, 464 students received undergraduate degrees and 151 students received graduate degrees. Giffords received an honorary degree in Humane Letters. Honorary degrees were also awarded to microbiologist Jo Handelsman, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick ’58, New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott, chef Alice Waters, and retired New York State prisons commissioner Brian Fischer.
Giffords and Kelly were driven to the Commencement Tent on the college’s rugby field in a golf cart shortly before the graduates arrived, around 2:30pm, and they left in a helicopter around 5pm that afternoon.
Bard President Leon Botstein had said earlier in the month that he views the honorary degree recipients as role models to the graduating class.
“They mirror values that we want to cultivate in the college back to the graduates,” he said.