“I’m on it.”
Paul Cellucci’s body was leaving him, the ALS claiming new territory each day. His arms and legs, his lungs, his voice. By the time the call came in on that April day, the former governor and ambassador to Canada could no longer move his body. His breathing was labored. His voice was thin. He was in hospice care. It wouldn’t be long.
Still, Cellucci worked. After his family, work was what he had always lived for, and he saw no reason to stop now. Sitting in his motorized chair in his Hudson living room, by a window that looked out on the woods he loved, he used what was left of his voice to dictate e-mails and page through online news. Health aides who expected to help Cellucci bathe and keep him comfortable were amazed to find themselves becoming office assistants, dialing into a conference call, or resetting a router.
“He just had this extraordinary will to continue as a public servant,” said his wife, Jan. She prayed every night that she’d have strength to support him, and that he’d have the strength to bear his illness. “That was almost a wasted prayer,” she joked. It was pointless to ask for something he’d always had.
And so, when his son-in-law called to say a family friend was in trouble, Paul Cellucci was on it.
Filmmaker Tim Tracy had been arrested in Venezuela, accused of fomenting an uprising. His brother Tripp had gotten to know Cellucci’s daughter Anne, and her husband Craig Adams, now a forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins, when they were all at Harvard. Tripp Tracy was desperate to get his brother out of Venezuela. Adams called Cellucci. And Cellucci went to work.
This was five years into Cellucci’s illness — an illness he had decided would take its natural course, declining interventions that would have delayed the inevitable. Making phone calls required serious planning, and an hour on breathing support to bolster his lung capacity and strengthen his voice. And Cellucci, a Republican who had spent a career making close friends on both sides of the aisle, had a lot of calls to make. He called Secretary of State John Kerry, with whom he had worked as governor and ambassador. He called former congressman Joe Kennedy, who had dealt with Venezuelan authorities through his fuel assistance nonprofit. And he called former congressman Bill Delahunt, who had attended the funeral of the nation’s longtime president, Hugo Chavez, a few weeks earlier.
“You could tell he was straining to speak,” Delahunt recalled. “I knew how draining simply making this call was, but he had made this commitment. It struck me as an act of courage.”
Delahunt got in touch with his contacts in the Venezuelan government. Kerry pushed for Tracy’s release through diplomacy: The new Venezuelan regime was eager to meet with the new secretary of state, and it quickly became obvious that Tracy’s release would make that more likely.
It all worked the way Cellucci knew it would, his faith in the good government can do unshakeable. He had no patience with politicians who didn’t understand the honor they’d been given, Jan said, who lost sight of their sole purpose, which was to serve people.
Tripp kept the e-mail updates coming over the next weeks, as Paul Cellucci’s days drew to their close. By the first week of June, he and Jan and the hospice team were planning for the end.
“He never had any anger, not any anxiety,” Jan said. “Our grandchildren had no sense that their grandfather was dying.”
Early on the morning of June 5, Tripp wrote to say the Venezuelan government had put his brother on a plane to Miami, after 42 days in prison. The Celluccis were overjoyed. So were the nurses, who had been following closely since that first call in April.
“They said, ‘You did it,’ ” Jan remembered. “And Paul is like, ‘No, I didn’t do it. Our government and Billy Delahunt did it. This is what government does.’ ”
Paul Cellucci died three days later, on June 8. He was 65.
Her husband’s efforts to help free Tim Tracy didn’t seem extraordinary to Jan Cellucci until she read an account of them earlier this month in the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., where Tripp Tracy is a commentator for the Hurricanes.
“It’s a truly inspirational story when you read it, but from my perspective, living it, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s Paul,’ ” she said. “I could give you a hundred more instances, maybe not as dramatic. After he died, I received scores of long letters from people with very compelling stories of how he’d helped them. None of these people I had ever heard of.”
Going through his e-mails just a few days ago, Jan Cellucci happened upon one from June 4, about a pond in Brighton a woman wanted named for her late, activist mother. The former governor had been e-mailing back and forth with a city councilor, trying to speed the process along. He’d also pushed former Senate president Robert Travaglini to keep an eye on it.
“I’m on the pond case!” Jan Cellucci recalled Travaglini saying as he arrived to say goodbye the next day. “I won’t let it slip through. Can I come in?”
Cellucci had squeezed in yet another unseen act of kindness.
“He died exactly how he lived,” Jan Cellucci said. “It’s a testament to the human spirit that someone could summon the focus and grace and dignity Paul did.”
His faith and generosity seem all the more extraordinary given the cavalcade of dysfunction we’ve seen in Washington these past couple of weeks, a disgrace largely driven by extremists in the GOP, a party that once had room for men like Paul Cellucci.
Here was a man who lived to compromise, because he knew that would better help the people he felt privileged to represent. Here was a man who lived to serve, even in his life’s last moments. Here was a man who showed how it should be done. Not just in politics, but everywhere.