Jeno Paulucci died Thursday morning, just four days after his wife passed away. He was, as we like to say, quite a larger-than-life character.
“Once my mother passed, my father was determined to be with her,” his daughter tells the Duluth News Tribune. “That was his wish, to be with Lois.”
There isn’t a lot of romance in most of the public stories about Mr. Paulucci. The Duluth paper details many of the stories about the jobs he brought to Duluth, but also the temper he had with people with whom he disagreed.
For a man described by one Duluth official as “the most important person in Duluth in the last 50 years, MPR provided very few stories about him. But the one it did — a look at his plan to turn a Hibbing chopsticks factory into a pasta production facility — gave us a memorable — and, actually, enjoyable — glimpse of his temper.
It was May 1996 — the good times — and MPR was detailing “The War Between the States” and the fight for businesses that had states throwing globs of money at anyone who’d move their businesses to the states. Paulucci wanted some of Minnesota’s for the project.
“I think it’s a great thing for government to be involved in areas where unemployment and welfare rolls are loaded with people who are deteriorating in character because they get give aways from welfare,” he told MPR reporter Mark Zdechlik at the time. “As long as that company you are dealing with is going to create a base of steady employment.”
Jim Gustafson, an economic development official for Minnesota, spent four years trying to make a deal with Paulucci.
“It has not been a pleasant deal,” he said at the time.
The story carried a warning even back then from a Federal Reserve official who said Washington should step in to prevent so many situations where public money was being thrown at private businesses, urging that decisions be made on business fundamentals instead.
After the story, we heard from Paulucci almost every day. It wasn’t, as Gustafson said, a “pleasant deal.” But it wasn’t boring and we don’t run into that sort of fighter in Minnesota much anymore. Too bad.
Paulucci’s story was the stuff of legend. The son of a poor immigrant family, he was simply good at peddling things. “My mother said of her neighbors: ‘The Paulucci family was poor like the rest of us. Jeno just worked harder than everyone else,'” former congressman Jim Oberstar said in a pitch for a book about Paulucci some years ago.
“Repeating over and over again my new name with its distinctive spelling, I made a vow that ‘Jeno’ would show the world that the Paolucci’s were better than the life they were forced to live. ‘Jeno’ would find a way out of this mess,” Paulucci wrote in his book. And he did, obviously never forgetting his roots along the way.
His death — and a look back at his life — could easily rekindle a discussion about whether hard work and good ideas are still the pathway to the success he enjoyed and shared.