BOSTON – Massachusetts political figures of both parties paid glowing tribute Thursday to former Gov. Argeo Paul Cellucci – a Republican who never lost an election in a Democratic-leaning state — in the building where he spent nearly a quarter of a century in public life.
Cellucci, 65, died Saturday of complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
A misty rain fell as the American flag-draped casket bearing Cellucci’s body was carried up the long front steps of the Statehouse by honorary state police pallbearers.
Moments earlier, a hush fell over normally busy Beacon Street as a motorcade that had begun about 40 miles to the west in Cellucci’s hometown of Hudson ended with the arrival of the hearse in front of the capital.
Gov. Deval Patrick and former Govs. Mitt Romney, Jane Swift, Michael Dukakis and William Weld were among those who joined Cellucci’s widow, Jan, and other family members and friends at a memorial service in the House of Representatives. Cellucci began his political career in that chamber in 1977.
He later served as a state senator before becoming Weld’s lieutenant governor in 1991. In 1997, he became acting governor after Weld resigned to pursue an ambassadorship, and in 1998 was elected in his own right as governor.
Cellucci resigned in 2001 after being tapped by President George W. Bush to become U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Swift, who was chosen by Cellucci to serve as the state’s first female lieutenant governor, became emotional at times during her remembrance of the man she said “gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to govern the commonwealth he loved.”
Swift said that Cellucci worked to provide more funding for the homeless and that his work on domestic violence “saved lives, plain and simple.”
“Paul proved that in the blood sport of Massachusetts politics, you can be a truly good and decent person and succeed at the highest level,” Swift said.
Throughout the day, a steady stream of people paid their respects by walking slowly past the casket in the ornate Hall of Flags at the Statehouse. Many also paused to view his official state portrait, which had been moved to the hall from its normal spot in the reception area of the governor’s office.
Cellucci’s reputation as an unassuming man who never forgot his roots was a constant theme of the memorial service. Speakers also recalled his low-key though sometimes biting sense of humor, and his love of movies – he would sometimes slip out of the Statehouse to catch the latest release and was known for his imitation of Robert DeNiro, to whom Cellucci bore a resemblance.
Andrew Card, who served as Bush’s chief of staff and was a lifelong friend of Cellucci’s, recalled a man he said was compassionate, smart, fiscally disciplined and beloved by all he came to know.
The former governor revealed in January 2011 that he had ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He devoted much of his remaining time to efforts to find a cure for the progressive neurodegenerative condition.