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SCOT LEHIGH

The boy from Springfield

SPRINGFIELD

SOME WHO gathered to watch 63-year-old Tom Reilly kick off his gubernatorial campaign last Tuesday still remember him best as the kid brother of their high school classmates.

Their recollections of Reilly and his family tend to trace a melancholy path back to two Reilly brothers, John and James, who died in tragic accidents.

George Bickford of West Springfield, a retired bricklayer, went to school with the older boys.

He recalls how James died at 26, hit by a huge earth-moving machine while driving stakes for a new runway at Westover Air Force Base back in 1956. That happened almost 50 years ago, but the sadness of it is still in Bickford's voice.

''Jimmy was my best friend," he says.

James was the second son Mortimer and Bridie Reilly lost. Some 14 years earlier, two months before Tom was born, John Reilly, 13, was struck and killed by a truck while riding his bike home just before Christmas 1941.

The second death was too much for his father to bear, the attorney general tells the audience here at American International College.

''My father never recovered," he says. Two years later, when Reilly was 16, his father died of a heart attack. ''If you ask me . . . he died of a broken heart."

After the death of his father and brother, ''I couldn't see a future for myself," he says.

Bored by school, he let his grades slide.

Gene Beauregard of Ludlow, a fellow member of the Cathedral High School class of 1959, remembers Reilly was a good egg, but quiet and unassuming.

''He wasn't a class officer or anything," says Beauregard.

Wayne Budd, later a Republican US attorney and now a Boston lawyer, was. He served as class president during his junior year. Budd is an African-American, and the parochial school was mostly white.

''Back in the '50s, that was big news," recalls Beauregard.

Budd and Reilly were best friends from age 12 on, Budd says in a later phone call. In the mid-70s, they opened a law firm together. The first attorney they hired was Ralph Martin, later Suffolk County district attorney. Like Budd, Martin is a Republican now, but both are supporting Reilly, a Democrat, for governor.

In his speech, Reilly talks about Budd's father, a former Marine who became a Springfield police officer, and who encouraged Reilly to go to college.

''Mr. Budd, Joe Budd, believed in me, encouraged me, and gave me hope," he says.

Joe Budd passed away almost two decades ago. Wayne Budd, cochairman of Reilly's campaign, is in California on this Tuesday, but his mother, Octavia, 84, has come, and afterward, Reilly seeks her out. As he arrives at her seat, another woman starts a conversation with her. Reilly waits patiently for them to finish before speaking.

''You know I don't like to come alone to any functions, but I came because Wayne said go," a delighted Mrs. Budd tells him.

''All of you did so much for me," Reilly says. ''Mr. Budd was not going to let me slip through the cracks," he adds.

She takes both his hands.

''Tom, I'm so proud of you," she says. ''I am so proud of you and Wayne."

Later, Mrs. Budd recalls that when others doubted Reilly was college material, her husband would have none of it.

''He told him he could make it, go to college," she says. ''All of my kids went to college."

With poor high school grades, Reilly had to earn his way into American International College by proving himself in night school. But that chance changed his life, he says in his speech.

It has taken him a long time to feel comfortable telling his family story, ''but then I realized this isn't just about my family and our struggles," he continues. ''I'm sure it's the story of many of you that are here today."

A boy helped along by others, Reilly says he will be a governor who makes sure others have similar opportunities -- and who will honor the values of hard work, education, and responsibility that helped him succeed.

Far from a natural politician, Reilly doesn't always connect well. And yet on this day, coming home to his Springfield roots, the normally matter-of-fact lawman has revealed a side of himself the state rarely sees -- a side that tells you a lot about what motivates the man.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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