BOSTON — Just before former Gov. Argeo Paul Cellucci announced publicly that he had ALS, he told the chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School that he was determined to do something to turn the diagnosis into a positive.
In the last years of his life, he threw himself into efforts to raise money for research, ultimately helping to bring in nearly $2 million.
Cellucci died at his home in Hudson on Saturday from complications of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative condition that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. He was 65.
“He knew this wasn’t going to help him, but he was determined that he could help others by working together with us,” said Dr. Michael Collins, chancellor of the UMass Medical School. “In many ways this was the act of a selfless public servant, right up to the end.”
Cellucci spent most of his adult life in politics, starting at the local level in his hometown of Hudson. In more than three decades, he never lost an election. He was a typically moderate New England Republican, fiscally conservative yet middle of the road on many social issues.
He was elected lieutenant governor on a ticket with one-time rival William Weld in 1990 and became acting governor in 1997 when Weld resigned to pursue an ambassadorship. Cellucci was elected governor in his own right in 1998, and in 2001 the Bush administration made him U.S. ambassador to Canada.
“This son of Hudson, Mass., was a close and loyal friend, a superb public servant, and a devoted family man – and our admiration for the way he served throughout his life, and fought a dreaded disease at the end, knows no bounds,” George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush said in a joint statement Saturday.
Cellucci was a longtime friend of the elder Bush, whose Massachusetts presidential campaigns he led, and was one of the first GOP governors to stoke the younger Bush’s presidential ambitions.
He was born in Hudson, a working-class town where his father owned car dealerships. He graduated from Boston College, where he served in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and received a degree from Boston College Law School in 1973.
He was still in school when he was first elected to the Hudson Charter Commission in 1970. He went on to serve on the Hudson Board of Selectmen and in both the state House and Senate.
Cellucci and Weld started as rivals before teaming up to run as a GOP ticket in 1990.
Cellucci’s personality was more reserved than Weld’s, but he played a much larger role than a typical lieutenant governor and was credited with guiding Weld, a former federal prosecutor and political neophyte, through the political process.
Weld often called Cellucci his “co-governor” and relied on him to work with Democrats and fellow Republicans in the Legislature to help push the administration’s agenda.
“Paul Cellucci was simply one of the finest human beings I have ever met,” Weld said in a statement. “I happened to know him in the realm of politics and government, but anyone who knew him in any other arena would have found the same man: a person of rock-hard integrity, keen intelligence, considerable humor, abundant compassion, and deep devotion to family and country.”
After fending off a nasty primary challenge by state Treasurer Joe Malone in the 1998 GOP primary, Cellucci faced Attorney General Scott Harshbarger in the November election, which he won with 51 percent of the vote.
His departure to become an ambassador paved the way for his lieutenant governor, Jane Swift, to become the state’s first female chief executive.
“Paul’s long record of public service was consistently defined by grace, integrity and common sense, qualities that are all too scarce in modern politics,” Swift said in a statement.
In addition to his more serious pursuits, Cellucci was known as a dedicated film buff. One of his favorite movies was the Coen brothers’ classic “The Big Lebowski.” Cellucci, who bore a resemblance to Robert De Niro, could also be persuaded to offer up his impersonation of De Niro’s character from “Taxi Driver.”
The former governor revealed in January 2011 that he had ALS, formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. More than 5,600 people are diagnosed every year.
“I’m leading a normal, private life. I will always be truly grateful for the opportunity to have served 35 years in public service,” he said in a statement to The Associated Press at the time.
Soon after, he helped launch the UMass ALS Champion Fund to support ALS research being led by Dr. Robert Brown.
Brown said Cellucci was very interested in the research being done at the school and would remember every nuance of a conversation about it six months later.
“He impressed me as being a man of extraordinary integrity,” Brown said.
Collins, the chancellor, said Cellucci was very proud of the school and did as much as he could on its behalf, even when his energy was sapped.
“His mind was keen throughout his illness and he worked as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen to help us succeed at this effort,” Collins said. “It was really pretty extraordinary.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, until recently a Massachusetts senator, said the former governor had called the state department just a few months ago to advocate for a Massachusetts family, which was “quintessential Paul Cellucci.”
“He always had time to ask about your family, and always had a twinkle in his eye about the great journey he’d taken from Hudson to the governor’s office and on to representing America in Canada,” Kerry said. “I can’t help but think of the final high standard Paul set in the way he battled ALS. The twinkle was still there, even from his wheelchair.”
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird called Cellucci “a great friend to Canada” who served “as the top American diplomat … at critical time of 9/11 and its aftermath.”
“We are grateful for his contributions to the bilateral relationship, both as ambassador and as governor of Massachusetts,” Baird said.
Cellucci is survived by his wife, Jan, their daughters Kate and Anne, and four grandchildren.