Kings Pointers' prayers with Giffords family

This April 2010 handout shows Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

This April 2010 handout shows Rep. Gabrielle Giffords with her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. (Credit: Getty Images)

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point holds an important place in the lives of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly.

It was on the campus in 2006 that Kelly, a 1986 academy graduate, proposed marriage to Giffords, said the school's chief of staff, Eric Wallischeck. Kelly chose to pop the question in front of the Amphitrite Pool, a fountain featuring a Greek sea-goddess statue into which midshipmen throw coins for luck before certain exams.

Now, as Giffords (D-Ariz.) clings to life after an assassination attempt Saturday in Tucson, classmates have been posting messages on Kelly's Facebook page and saying their thoughts are with him.

"The bond we make as midshipmen is a special one, and for many of us remains throughout our lives," said Connie Dato English, who graduated with Kelly and exchanged e-mails with him in September. "All of Mark's classmates and, for that matter, Kings Pointers everywhere, are keeping Mark and his wife in our prayers."

Wallischeck said the academy's superintendent, Rear Adm. Philip Greene, plans to reach out to Kelly this week.

Kelly, an astronaut, is a native of West Orange, N.J., and his interest in the Merchant Marine service was piqued by childhood trips to the Jersey Shore and stays on his parents' boat, as well as his grandfather's time in the service, he told a NASA interviewer in July.

"The reason I went to the school that I did was because . . . they had Navy ROTC there and also it was a regimental type of environment," Kelly said. "I thought it'd be better for me, give me more time to focus on schoolwork and I was, I was obviously right."

Kelly joined the Navy shortly after graduating from the academy and soon gained fame as an elite aviator and astronaut. His twin brother, Scott, also an astronaut, is currently commanding the International Space Station, Expedition 26.

Mark Kelly, 46, has flown three space shuttle missions and was due for a fourth in April on the shuttle Endeavor. He flew 39 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and has more than 5,000 flight hours on 50 different types of aircraft, according to his NASA bio.

In 2006, the Merchant Marine Academy named him alumnus of the year. He and Giffords were in Kings Point for the awards ceremony when he proposed. He keeps his Third Mate's license current, though he has no plans to sail with it, he told the NASA interviewer for a promotional video.

English said Kelly remained in contact with many of his friends from the academy. And Wallischeck said Kelly took pride in his Kings Point connection.

"This is where he got his professional start and went on to a distinguished career," Wallischeck said.

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