Lou and Jodi Rell, with Sen. John McKinney, at the unveiling last year of the governor's portrait in Hartford. CT Mirror
Lou and Jodi Rell, with Sen. John McKinney, at the unveiling last year of the governor's portrait in Hartford.
Lou and Jodi Rell, with Sen. John McKinney, at the unveiling last year of the former governor's portrait in Hartford. CT Mirror

Louis R. Rell, a former U.S. Navy aviator and commercial airline pilot who played an encouraging, behind-the-scenes role in the political career of his wife, former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, died Saturday in Florida. He was 73.

Mr. Rell, who lived with his wife in Brookfield and in Florida, died after a long struggle with cancer, according to a brief statement by his son, Michael Rell, a member of the Wethersfield Town Council.

During his wife’s six years as governor, Mr. Rell largely eschewed a public role as first spouse, other than escorting the governor at public events, most notably on July 1, 2004, when the couple walked together to Mrs. Rell’s swearing in.

It was a tumultuous day. Gov. John G. Rowland had resigned midway through his third term, chased from office by an impeachment inquiry. Mrs. Rell confessed to a case of butterflies as she exited from a Lincoln Town Car at the foot of the north driveway to the Capitol grounds, ready to make the transition from lieutenant to governor.

Her husband of 37 years smiled and took her hand, and they walked hand-in-hand up the drive, where 2,000 onlookers waited to see her become the 87th governor of Connecticut. After she took the oath, Mr. Rell leaned forward to kiss the new governor.

From the start, Mr. Rell said he anticipated no public role other than supportive spouse. He generally gave no interviews, despite a gregarious nature, easy humor and a comfortable relationship with some of the reporters who covered his wife.

During their first Halloween in the Executive Residence, Mr. Rell stood unrecognized next to the governor, who greeted children at the brick mansion in Hartford’s West End. The governor was dressed as a UConn cheerleader; her husband was hidden inside the costume of the school’s mascot, a larger-than-life husky.

Lou and Jodi Rell married in 1967, while he was a Navy pilot stationed at NAS Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., his wife’s hometown, and she was a student at Old Dominion University.

He flew carrier-based electronic surveillance aircraft. In his squadron’s alumni newsletter, Mr. Rell was referred to as the colleague with the “celebrity wife,” whose duties kept them from a reunion in 2010 when a tropical storm hit Connecticut.

The Rells had come to the Northeast after Mr. Rell became a commercial airline pilot with TWA, first living in New Jersey and finally settling in rural Brookfield, a popular base for pilots with its relatively easy access to the airports of New York.

Mrs. Rell got into politics by helping run the campaigns of Rep. David Smith, an Eastern Airlines pilot. When he declined to seek a fifth term in 1984, Smith urged Mrs. Rell to run.

Mr. Rell encouraged her, promising to take leave as a pilot to watch their two children during the crazy last weeks of the legislature’s annual session, when the part-time position can turn into a round-the-clock slog.

After retiring as a pilot, Mr. Rell opened a medical taxi business, transporting patients to appointments.

Their 19th century, white clapboard farmhouse in Brookfield was an escape throughout Mrs. Rell’s tenure as governor, as were their friends who predated Mrs. Rell’s time in state politics. To them, Mr. Rell was the easygoing neighbor who would pop over and help hang wallpaper.

In November 2007, a year after Mrs. Rell was elected to a four-year term in a landslide, Mr. Rell underwent surgery to remove a stage 1 cancerous growth in his esophagus. He recovered, though an undisclosed health issue with Mr. Rell caused the Rells to abruptly cancel plans to attend the 2008 Republican National Convention.

That was a disappointment to Mr. Rell, a fan of the fellow Navy pilot who won the nomination: Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

The Rells returned to their Brookfield farmhouse after Mrs. Rell left office in January 2011. When the couple decided to downsize into a nearby condominium, they sold the house to their daughter, Meredith, who is married and the mother of two children.

The family was together in public in September 2013, when the former governor’s official portrait was unveiled in the State Library, across from the State Capitol. Mrs. Rell summoned their four grandchildren to help with the unveiling. A smiling Mr. Rell, who seemed in good spirits and good health, snapped a photograph.

His family was at his side at his death at a hospital in Florida, Michael Rell said.

Arrangements were incomplete, but the family plans on services to be held in Connecticut.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Democratic State Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo offered public condolences Saturday night to the former Republican governor and her family.

“Cathy and I send our deepest condolences to Governor Rell and her family on the passing of Lou Rell,” Malloy said. “Lou was devoted to his family, and their loss is felt by countless people throughout our state. Governor Rell, her family, and the Brookfield community will remain in our thoughts and prayers in the coming days.”

Wyman served with Mrs. Rell in the state House of Representatives.

“I was very fortunate to have known Lou Rell for many years,” Wyman said. “He was a man of integrity, humor, and commitment, and his passing is a tremendous loss. Lou was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather, and an important source of support to his family and friends. My deepest sympathy goes out to Governor Rell and her family – we hold them in our thoughts during this difficult time.”

“I want to extend my deepest condolences to Governor Rell for the loss of her husband,” DiNardo said. “Connecticut Democrats join Governor Rell and her family in mourning a great man who served his state and his country.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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