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Adrian Walker

Paul Cellucci’s way was honorable

Paul Cellucci was probably the only governor in Massachusetts history whose best friend ran a hair salon.

During his years as lieutenant governor and governor, writers seeking insight into Cellucci’s Central Massachusetts roots often made the journey to Bobby Yesue’s hair and tanning salon in Marlborough. My first trip came just after Cellucci became acting governor in 1997. There I met a group of Cellucci’s lifelong friends, telling stories about the man who, to their amazement, was suddenly running Massachusetts.

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They never doubted that Cellucci had the ability to achieve success. They were simply people who knew firsthand what an improbable journey he had made.

“He’s made the unbelievable believable,” Yesue said that day, as he cut a customer’s hair. “If you had asked me when we were in school if he would be governor, I would have had to say no. I mean, I wanted to be Mickey Mantle, but I’m not in Yankee Stadium.”

Cellucci, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis Saturday at the age of 65, was rightly lauded by his many friends in both political parties. He might have labored in the shadow of Bill Weld in the public imagination, but he was beloved on Beacon Hill among the people who really knew him.

Cellucci had an almost singular career in Massachusetts politics. First elected to local office at 21, the first vote he ever cast was for himself. He never lost an election at any level. He also never lost his self-effacing personality.

But it was all forged in Hudson, the Central Massachusetts burg where his family had been influential for decades. The family business was cars; they sold Oldsmobiles for 69 years and Chevrolets for about 30. Cellucci was groomed for the family business, but chose a different path.

He talked about how the experience of growing up on an auto lot shaped him. “From my early days . . . I remember how important pay day was. You know, on Fridays, the mechanics, the office workers, the sales force.. . . That’s how they supported themselves and their families. And that’s something I’ve never forgotten, how important small businesses are, and business in general.”

Cellucci’s political role model was John Volpe, who had served as governor in the 1960s. When Cellucci became governor, he hung a picture of Volpe over his desk.

Cellucci was occasionally maligned as less than visionary, but he staunchly defended his small-ball approach to governing. He believed that the nuts and bolts of government were every bit as important as vision and never apologized for his attention to detail.

It wasn’t a huge surprise when he gave up the governor’s office less than three years into his elected term to become ambassador to Canada. After serving in the State House since his 20s, he seemed ready to move on.

Still, he made his way back to Massachusetts. His last great act of selflessness was to turn his illness into an opportunity to help others. With the enthusiastic help of Weld, he raised a ton of money for ALS research at the University of Massachusetts.

One of Cellucci’s quiet admirers was Roderick Ireland, the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. Ireland was nominated as an associate justice by Weld, but sworn in by Cellucci, in one of his first acts as acting governor. Cellucci, who as lieutenant governor was deeply involved in judicial appointments, seemed to take a quiet pride in playing a role in the appointment of the SJC’s first black justice.

They had last communicated shortly after Cellucci went public with his diagnosis. Ireland wrote Cellucci a note and was surprised to get one back a few days later.

“He was just always very gracious and kind and a real gentleman,” Ireland said Tuesday.

Cellucci will lie in state at the State House Thursday, a fitting tribute to a man who was such a part of the soul of the place. Without fanfare, and without ego, Cellucci left a lasting mark.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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