The Massachusetts political establishment honored the life of former governor Argeo Paul Cellucci today in a memorial at the State House.
The casket carrying the former governor processed into the State House shortly past noon, past a string of dignitaries that included Governor Deval Patrick and former governors Mitt Romney, Jane Swift, Michael Dukakis, former White House chief of staff Andrew Card, and Cellucci’s friend and political partner, former governor William F. Weld.
The ceremony, held in the House chamber, was packed with Massachusetts politicians past and present, some of whom shared their memories of the Hudson native who started his career as a selectman in the central Massachusetts town and ended as ambassador to Canada. Cellucci died at his home on Saturday after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, recalled how he turned to Cellucci for support for an issue both agreed upon, despite their membership in competing political parties: Italian-American history.
“When we wanted to create Italian-American heritage month, I knew exactly where to go,’’ DeLeo said.
He added that both he and Cellucci loved to play bocce.
“He was pretty good at bocce, but not as good as he thought he was,’’ DeLeo quipped.
Weld and Cellucci became political partners and then lifelong friends when they joined up to run for governor and lieutenant governor in 1990 as Republicans in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
Today, Weld described Cellucci as a handsome man. And Weld recounted an incident that involved Cellucci, an image of famed male model, Fabio, and a group of women. Weld said in the image Fabio was nude.
“He had nothing on but the radio,’’ Weld said, generating howls of laughter.
Weld, who led the ticket for the Republican party, said he asked the women if Fabio reminded them of any one. Each woman turned and looked at Cellucci, Weld said, to more laughter.
Swift, who succeeded Cellucci when the later became US ambassador to Canada, spoke of Cellucci’s support for abortion rights, programs to combat domestic violence, and of women in government.
She recalled a meeting in 1999, when Cellucci and his staff were reviewing female candidates for judgeship and someone raised concerns about their temperaments. After the meeting, Swift mentioned those concerns to Cellucci. He promptly dismissed them, saying “I discount comments like that about female candidates that wouldn’t be said about a man.”
Weld also said he has spoken with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the Democratic former US senator. Despite his battle with the disease that held repsonsible for ending his life, Cellucci called Kerry at the State Department recently — to talk about a Massachusetts couple, not himself.
As he closed his speech, Weld held up a T-shirt from their 1990 campaign that carried a slogan he suggested captured Cellucci’s public life. The slogan was “some of our best friends are Democrats.”
Thursday’s gathering in the capitol convened political royalty from the last three decades, at times putting in close proximity to one another old rivals with still-raw feelings. Swift, for instance, stood on the State House steps next to Romney, whose return to the Massachusetts political arena in 2002 helped usher Swift’s political career to a close.
Inside the House Chamber, former Senate president William M. Bulger sat seats away from former attorney general Thomas F. Reilly, who helped escalate the political pressure on Bulger to step down from the presidency of the University of Massachusetts.
Cellucci’s appeal bridged many of these divides, members of both parties recalled on Thursday. Hours after the ceremony ended, Democratic lawmakers were among those tarrying at the end of the line to pay respects at Cellucci’s casket, which will lie in state in the Hall of Flags at the State House.
A funeral Mass is scheduled for Friday in Hudson.