William Weld and Paul Cellucci had known each other only a short time when they joined forces to run on a ticket for governor, a partnership that came to define an era in Massachusetts politics.
More than two decades later, the old friends and political allies are teaming up again in a final collaboration, a poignant, deeply personal stand against ALS, the ravaging disease Cellucci now confronts.
For Cellucci, who made his diagnosis public early last year, the ambitious fund-raising effort has lent him purpose and comfort, an ease to his mind as his body fails.
Working the phones with Weld like they did in their political heyday, he said, has felt like old times.
“The old Weld-Cellucci team,’’ Cellucci said Wednesday, a bit of nostalgia in his voice. “Back together again.’’
“It’s a beautiful display of the spirit of public service in a very challenging time.’
For Weld, who has rushed to support the man who served as his lieutenant, the experience has deepened their kinship, and his admiration for Cellucci’s resolve in the face of the illness that now confines him to a wheelchair.
“We are each other’s alter ego in politics and much else,’’ Weld said. “In a way, he views this is as our last campaign.’’
On Thursday, the two former governors were to host a major fund-raiser for ALS research at the Seaport Boston Hotel that will double as a political reunion and show of support for Cellucci.
Cellucci, 63, was lieutenant governor during Weld’s two terms as governor in the 1990s, and then as his successor, serving as governor from 1997 to 2001.
Last year, Cellucci and University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester announced plans to create a $10 million endowment for cutting-edge ALS research at the school, where he is receiving care.
The campaign, known as the Champion Fund, has already raised over $1 million, and Biogen Idec, a biotechnology firm, will announce a major donation at the event, Weld said.
The endowment will finance research by a leading team of UMass researchers that features Robert Brown Jr., who is recognized as a pioneer in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis research. There is currently no treatment to stop or reverse ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a terminal degenerative neurological illness.
The philosophy behind the fund is to support research in its infancy and give scientists the freedom to explore ideas without an immediate destination in mind, said Michael F. Collins, the chancellor of the medical school.
Grants for research into ideas “that are not yet fully thought out,’’ Collins said, are often hard to come by.
“This will allow them to take the ideas back to the lab.’’
Cellucci’s determination to raise money for ALS research, and Weld’s insistence on helping him at every turn, has been touching, Collins said.
“It’s a beautiful display of the spirit of public service in a very challenging time,’’ he said.
Recalling the meeting when Cellucci described his vision for the endowment, Collins said he asked whether the former governor wanted to spend his remaining time on such an ambitious campaign.
“There was not a second of hesitation,’’ he said.
A short time later, at Cellucci’s behest, Weld, now a lawyer in New York City, joined the cause with his customary vigor, Collins said, fueled by dedication to an old friend.
“It goes way beyond politics,’’ he said.
Weld said Cellucci is fiercely determined to do what he can, with the time he has left, to help find a cure.
“Not necessarily to his advantage,’’ Weld said. “But to the advantage to others. That’s him. He’s making this happen.’’
Most preliminary scientific ideas are not fundable, without a clear goal in mind, Weld said. The endowment would seek to change that, so potential breakthroughs “won’t have to be abandoned for lack of funding.’’
Weld recalled the lunch when he and Cellucci agreed to run on the same ticket. It was at an Italian restaurant, and Weld ordered milk to wash down his meal.
Cellucci was horrified, he said with a chuckle. But that meeting led to a successful political alliance.
“Every issue in our seven years required two sign-offs,’’ he said. “We really have been very close.’’
Cellucci said he feels good, other than weakness in his arms and legs, and said he remains busy. He said he tries to stay positive, and said he has been overwhelmed by the unwavering support of friends and family.
He also said that he draws comfort from the campaign, and the hope that researchers are getting closer to a breakthrough every day.
“I really believe they are going to unlock those diseases,’’ he said.