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Originally published January 28, 2013 at 8:00 PM | Page modified January 29, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Gabby Giffords surprise guest at inspiring event

At Aegis Living’s annual employee meeting, Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly recalled their inspirational journey.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I was trying to get back to my seat in a meeting room at the Grand Hyatt when I found myself standing beside Gabby Giffords.

She was sitting in the back of the room, watching her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, speak to Aegis Living employees at their annual E.P.I.C. event — Empowering People, Inspiring Consciousness — which was dreamed up and bankrolled by the high-end assisted-living chain’s CEO, Dwayne Clark.

At just the right moment, Giffords got up from her chair and limped — slowly, deliberately, miraculously — to the front of the room to stand on stage with her husband, surprising everyone. No one knew she was coming.

“I am working hard,” she read haltingly, from prepared notes. “Lots of speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy and yoga, too. But my spirit is stronger than ever.”

Giffords and Kelly were part of a slate of speakers hand-picked by Clark.

“We choose people that we think will wake people up,” he told me during a break. “It’s rocket fuel, man. Goodness breeds goodness.”

To that end, Clark purchased 74 cowhide drums so employees could pound them with Okella Sam, the founder of the Hope North foundation. (Clark plans to use the drums in Aegis’ Alzheimer’s program.)

The gathered employees listened as actress Daryl Hannah confessed to crippling shyness. When three of her movies came out in 1984 (“The Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Reckless” and “Splash”), she fainted on David Letterman’s show, and peed her pants at a news conference.

Kenny G, a graduate of Franklin High and an accounting major at the University of Washington (!), walked around the room, high-fiving people as he held a note on his soprano sax for a worrisome amount of time, then reminded the crowd it was no big thing. In 2007, he set the world’s record for the longest note played on a saxophone: 45 minutes, 47 seconds. (Who knew?)

G told the group that even though he’s the biggest-selling instrumental musician of the modern era, well, he’s a little lost.

“I feel like I’ve lost the connection with people who enjoy my music,” he said. “I am looking for a new way to reach them.” (That may explain his recent appearance in Katy Perry’s “Friday Night” video.)

His friend, Starbucks head Howard Schultz, told him the coffee company went through the same thing: “We just got our hands dirty again,” Schultz told him.

Whatever that means, it must’ve worked; Schultz got an 80 percent pay raise last year.

Geena Davis, 6 feet tall even without the heels, spoke about the low percentage of women in television and film — even crowd scenes. She sponsored research at UCLA on gender in entertainment, which showed there were nearly three males to every one female character in the nearly 400 movies of all ratings.

However, there is one area in which Davis is fine with the inequality: criminal characters.

“I’m not going to fight for parity,” she joked.

It was Kelly’s stories that moved people most, though.

He spoke of commanding the last flight of the NASA Space Shuttle while his wife was undergoing rehab.

Being in space “wasn’t a religious experience,” he said. “I was just making sure I got everything done. I was the person responsible when things go wrong.”

But it was when things went most wrong that Kelly was powerless. When his wife was shot at a Tucson shopping center in January 2011, he was in Houston, and had to rush home amid erroneous reports of her death.

Giffords underwent several surgeries, including one that removed a portion of her skull where the bullet entered.

Last November, Kelly and Giffords attended the sentencing of the man who shot her, killed six people and injured 12 others in Tucson.

As he read a statement, “Gabby stared at him the whole time,” Kelly said. “She stared him down, and he was listening.”

Kelly told him, in part, “After this moment, here and now, Gabby and I are done thinking about you.”

Today, Giffords still struggles, with a paralyzed right arm and impaired vision, but the couple have gamely moved past the trauma. And Kelly still adores the woman who when they first met “seemed like 10 women at once.” Plus, she laughed at his jokes.

Indeed, that same sense of humor has helped them through their recent ordeal: Giffords keeps the skull fragment that was removed in Tupperware in the freezer.

“If you come to our house,” Kelly said, “she’ll show it to you.”

Gifts from the alumni

“You want some smoked mackerel spread?” ChefEthan Stowell asked me as he started spreading the stuff on crostini.

No thanks. But I would love the recipe for that dressing you put on your kale salad.

Stowell obliged. He’s feeling very charitable, which is why he agreed to be one of 16 chefs at South Seattle Community College’s “Gifts from The Earth” gala last Saturday.

“We’re trying to do more charity stuff than we have in the past,” said Stowell, who owns five restaurants in town. “In the last two years, we have done more charity events than we did in the five years before.”

This annual event, which sells out every year, was just the ticket: 300 attendees ate, drank, bid on auction items — and, most important, wrote checks. Alumni cooked or poured wine of their own making. Students clean up — both literally, and in the form of scholarships.

Last year’s event raised $170,000 — some of which went toward the “13th Year” program, which funds the first year at SSCC for anyone who graduates from Cleveland or Chief Sealth high schools.

“If you give one year in college to somebody, they become a producer, not a tax user,” said SSCC board member Ed Parks. “It’s the tipping point.”

As attendees streamed into the room with fresh glasses of tipple, SSCC alumni Stacy Sparks gave a cluster of student servers their marching orders.

“If your table is done, or if you have a slow eater, let the chef know,” she marshaled. “Alhadeff, who’s working Alhadeff?”

Two servers raised their hands tentatively.

“That’s our VIP table,” she said. “Work it. Make eye contact. And do not carry more than you’re comfortable with!”

Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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About Nicole Brodeur

My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper. nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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