The Canadian ambassador recalled him visiting every town in Canada where American flights were forced to land on Sept. 11, 2001, just to thank the residents for their support. His former lieutenant governor recalled him promoting and defending women in government. The House speaker remembered a shared love for their Italian heritage over rounds of bocce and plates of pasta in the North End.
A striking constellation of political figures, including rivals and allies past and present, shared these memories of Paul Cellucci at an emotional State House memorial service for the former governor on Thursday. The farewell was both a reunion for a graying generation of Republicans who ruled Beacon Hill in the 1990s and a heartfelt tribute to a governor who was remembered for his decency, compassion, and humility.
Cellucci, who died Saturday of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 65, rose from small-town politics in his hometown of Hudson through the ranks of the Legislature before serving as lieutenant governor, acting governor, governor, and ambassador to Canada.
The ceremony in the House chamber where Cellucci once served was punctuated by laughter and tears. Former governor William F. Weld, Cellucci’s political partner and friend, said Cellucci is rightly recalled as a man of the people, but he argued that description belies his intelligence and innate feel for politics.
“Paul was a natural,” Weld said, as Cellucci’s flag-draped casket lay before him. “He was touched by fire. He just never rubbed your face in it.”
Cellucci was also good-
looking, Weld said. He recalled the pair visiting a welfare office in Lawrence where a poster on the wall showed Fabio in the nude, “with nothing on but the radio,’’ as Weld put it, to howls of laughter. Weld pointed to the poster and asked several female employees if Fabio reminded them of anyone there.
“Every single one of them turned to Paul and blushed,” Weld said, “down to the roots of their hair.”
While the outward mood was reverential and collegial, the service created some awkward groupings, hinting at tensions that would have amused Cellucci, a keen student and practitioner of Massachusetts politics.
Former governor Mitt Romney, a Republican and onetime presidential nominee, was seated next to former governor Michael S. Dukakis, a Democrat and former presidential nominee who once called Romney a “fraud.” Also next to Romney was Jane Swift, the former acting governor who tearfully withdrew from the 2002 governor’s race after Romney swooped in and announced his determination to run for the Republican nomination.
Seated up front, applauding with all the rest, was former Senate president William M. Bulger, whose brother, James, was seated a few miles away, in federal court in South Boston, facing a 32-count indictment on charges including extortion, racketeering, and murder.
Before the memorial, old political hands assembled for a formal procession to greet Cellucci’s casket on the State House steps.
“Two rows! Two rows!” David B. Balfour, a former aide, barked at the group, which included a former House speaker, former Senate president, and Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox chief executive.
“Where’s Dukakis? Hurry up!” an event planner exclaimed, as Weld, Romney, and Swift stood patiently in line. After Dukakis arrived and the group marched onto the steps, white-gloved state troopers carried Cellucci’s casket through the front entrance of the State House, used only on rare ceremonial occasions.
In the House chamber, Swift, Cellucci’s lieutenant governor who succeeded him when he became ambassador to Canada, spoke of her boss’s support for abortion rights, programs to combat domestic violence, and of women on male-dominated Beacon Hill.
She recalled a meeting in 1999, when Cellucci and his staff were reviewing female candidates for judgeships, and someone raised concerns about their temperaments. After the meeting, Swift asked Cellucci about those concerns. He promptly dismissed them, saying, “I discount comments like that about female candidates that wouldn’t be said about a man.”
Cellucci’s inclusive style was a main theme of many tributes.
Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, recalled Cellucci giving him a piece of advice: Never lose control of your schedule, a point Cellucci underscored by lamenting that his staff once signed him up to cut the ribbon on an ATM machine.
Weld held up a 1990 Weld-Cellucci campaign T-shirt, and read the slogan: “Some of our best friends are Democrats.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Democrat, recalled bonding with Cellucci over their roots. “When we wanted to create Italian-American heritage month, I knew exactly where to go,” DeLeo said, adding, “He was pretty good at bocce, also, but not as good as he thought he was.”
A funeral service for Cellucci will be held Friday at Saint Michael Church in Hudson.
James O’Sullivan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson @globe.com..