Ex-Mass. Governor Argeo Paul Cellucci died of ALS over the weekend.
BOSTON — Former Gov. Argeo Paul Cellucci, who led Massachusetts from 1997 to 2001 before becoming U.S. ambassador to Canada, died Saturday at his home of complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 65.
His death was announced by Dr. Michael F. Collins, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where Cellucci spearheaded an effort to raise funds for ALS research after publicly revealing his diagnosis in 2011.
“I can’t help but think of the final high standard Paul set in the way he battled ALS,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “The twinkle was still there, even from his wheelchair. He didn’t withdraw, but rather he began a new chapter as an advocate supporting UMass’s research into the very illness that he faced with courage.”
In more than three decades in politics, starting at the local level on a commission in his hometown of Hudson, Cellucci never lost an election. He was a typically moderate New England Republican, fiscally conservative yet middle of the road on many social issues.
“Massachusetts lost a favored son and devoted public servant today,” Gov. Deval Patrick said. “A lawyer, legislator, governor and diplomat, Paul Cellucci was also a kind man and a friend.”
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 won election as governor in his own right in 1998. In 2001, the Bush administration made him U.S. ambassador to Canada.
“This son of Hudson, Massachusetts, 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 Republican governors to stoke the younger Bush’s presidential ambitions. He was approached by Bush’s team for a possible Cabinet post but was said to be cool to the idea.
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.
Cellucci revealed in January 2011 that he had ALS, formerly known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. More than 5,600 people are diagnosed with ALS 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. The school said the campaign raised nearly $2 million under his leadership.
Collins, the UMass Medical School chancellor, said Cellucci came to him just before he went public with his diagnosis and said he wanted to do something to turn it into a positive.
“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.”
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 into offering up his impersonation of De Niro’s character from “Taxi Driver.”
Cellucci is survived by his wife, Jan, their daughters Kate and Anne, and four grandchildren.