Story highlights

Paul Cellucci went from a small town to become governor, ambassador to Canada

He announced he had Lou Gehrig's Disease in 2011, then raised funds for research

He died surrounded by family at his home, the UMass medical school announces

Bush presidents call him a "loyal friend (and) superb public servant"

CNN —  

Former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci – who later served as U.S. ambassador to Canada – died Saturday after battling ALS, the University of Massachusetts Medical School said.

He was 65.

Cellucci died at his home in Hudson – the small town from which he rose from selectman to eventually governor and diplomat – surrounded by family, the school said, adding it was announcing the news on behalf of Cellucci’s family.

A graduate of Boston College and Boston College Law School, Cellucci served in the U.S. Army Reserves and worked as a lawyer and for his family’s car dealership before he was elected in 1976 to the Massachusetts Legislature.

The Republican served for 14 years there, as a state representative and later a state senator, before being elected lieutenant governor in 1990, according to his biography on the state website.

When Gov. William Weld stepped down in 1997 after being tapped by President Bill Clinton to become U.S. ambassador to Mexico – a job he never got due to GOP objections – Cellucci took his place. Bay State voters elected him to the governorship the following year.

In 2001, Cellucci followed Weld’s lead in leaving the Massachusetts State House for an ambassador’s job following his nomination by President George W. Bush. He assumed the position as America’s top diplomat in Canada, a post he held for five years.

Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush released a joint statement Saturday about a man they called “a close and loyal friend, a superb public servant and a devoted family man.”

They noted that Cellucci was the first Massachusetts official to back the elder Bush’s losing 1980 presidential campaign, grouping him with other Bay Staters such as Andrew Card and Andrew Natsios who also served under the two Bushes.

“We were deeply saddened to learn of Paul Cellucci’s passing,” the former presidents said. “…Our admiration for the way he served throughout his life, and fought a dreaded disease at the end, knows no bounds. "

Cellucci announced in January 2011 that that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known by its acronynm of ALS and also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He worked with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to raise nearly $2 million funds for research on the disease.

ALS patients lose muscle function in the lungs until they can no longer breathe. Most people with ALS die from respiratory failure within three to five years of first symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health. The disease causes nerves to wither and the lungs to stop working. About 10% of ALS patients live 10 years or longer.

“The governor refused to allow his challenging diagnosis to prevent him from continuing his lifetime’s work of serving and helping others,” UMass Medical School Chancellor Michael Collins said. “Instead, he made a conscious and inspiring decision to use his illness to raise awareness, galvanize action and spread hope.”