HUDSON — The booth near the kitchen door at Victor’s 50’s Diner is a quiet, cozy spot in a place that offers comfort food and conversation in the unpretentious heart of this former factory town.
Booth No. 1 also is where Paul Cellucci, native son and local hero, liked to huddle with old friends.
According to the lunchtime crowd Friday, that match was ideal. Quiet, comfortable, and unpretentious also describe the traits that endeared the former Republican governor and US ambassador to a hometown he never left.
“He didn’t have an enemy that I know of,” said Bill Jackson, 74, a former Hudson selectman whose wife used to baby-sit Cellucci.
Although Booth No. 1 remained empty for much of lunch, Cellucci’s presence seemed to permeate every corner of the diner while he was eulogized a few blocks away at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church.
“Everybody loved him,” said Niki Bocolos, who poured coffee at the counter and greeted regulars by name. “He was a very likable guy.”
There was little trace of sadness in Victor’s. Just smiles, fond reminiscences, and wistful hopes that more Paul Celluccis will emerge to ease the partisan rancor that has paralyzed national politics.
Jackson, former chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, recalled that “there was never any animosity” between Cellucci and Democrats. “Everyone was pulling on the same rope,” he said.
Cellucci was the familiar neighbor who would mow his lawn while serving as governor, go for a jog or walk in the town, and trade small talk in the grocery store aisle.
Flo Freitas, 77, recalled that Cellucci chatted with her while waiting for dinner at the Marlborough Country Club. “All he knew was my face. He didn’t know who I was,” said Freitas, still struck by the friendliness of that gesture.
Although she is an independent voter, Freitas said Cellucci was an easy choice at the polls.
“He was the kind of guy who’d always have a kind word and was genuinely interested in what was going on in your life,” said Joseph Durant, 58, the Board of Selectmen chairman. “Some people forget their roots. They make it in whatever their field is, and they become, for lack of a better word, a big shot.
“Paul never did.”
Cellucci’s political resume is unblemished by defeat. From charter commission to selectman, state representative to state senator, and lieutenant governor to governor, Cellucci won them all.
“No matter how big the office, Hudson was always his base, and he never forgot that,” Durant said.
“When he was sworn in as governor, he invited the entire Board of Selectmen to the swearing-in and sat us down in front.”
What separated Cellucci from many other legislators, Durant said, was that he “was not a ‘politician.’ He was a public servant, and he took that charge very seriously.”
That sense of service came from his father, Argeo R. Cellucci Jr., several residents said. The elder Cellucci, an automobile dealer known as “Junior,” led the town’s Economic Development Commission for 39 years and is credited with revitalizing the community through high-tech jobs from Intel, among other new businesses.
There is an Argeo R. Cellucci Jr. Clubhouse at the Boys and Girls Club here, and a Cellucci multipurpose park named for him.
“His father was the front man, and he pushed Paul into politics and got him going,” said Wes Durant, 80, who runs an insurance agency in town and is not related to the selectman.
Cellucci’s rise to governor did not surprise his neighbors, Durant said, “if only because they knew his father.”
Jackson said Cellucci fulfilled the ambition that his father possessed but had difficulty pursuing as a first-generation Italian-American.
“Paul basically lived the life that his father wanted to live. His father was just a generation too early,” Jackson said.
The younger Cellucci, he said, probably fell short of fully embracing his father’s political goals for him.
“Left to his own devices,” Jackson said, “Paul probably wouldn’t have been that ambitious.”
But what Cellucci did embrace, Jackson and others said, was an unwavering commitment to Hudson, which has grown to 15,000 people but still retains a small-town feel.
“The kids he was friendly with in the first grade, he was never out of touch with,” Jackson said. “It was a nice thing.”
Because of those connections, Cellucci never became cut off from a town where being governor was a nice accomplishment, but not what defined him. And although his struggles with Lou Gehrig’s disease reduced his activities in Hudson, residents said, Cellucci remained a presence in the community.
“In the nicest way, he was completely without airs,” said Durant, the selectmen chairman. “It sounds like faint praise, but he was a good man.”
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