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Jeno Paulucci, Duluth and Iron Range business icon, dies

Jeno and Lois Paulucci had "an incredible love story," their daughter Cindy Paulucci Selton said Thursday.

Four days after losing his beloved wife of more than 64 years, Jeno Paulucci died at his Duluth home on Thanksgiving morning. He was 93.

"Once my mother passed, my father was determined to be with her," Selton said. "That was his wish, to be with Lois."

Former Duluth Mayor Gary Doty, who is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Lois Paulucci's funeral on Monday, was stunned when he heard the news.

"What a tragedy, to lose two people like that in such a short time," Doty said.

Doty recalled that in his first run for office, Paulucci backed his opponent. Yet the two men became close friends, particularly in later years. And while "he had a reputation as a very tough man," Doty remembered Paulucci for his kindness.

"If there were people in need, I could call Jeno, and he never turned it down," Doty said.

He also talked about the Pauluccis as a couple. "Lois understood Jeno," Doty said. "She understood that Jeno was in charge of his business and he was going to do what he was going to do. (But) when they were together, Jeno deferred to Lois."

They would have been married 65 years in February, said Selton, one of the couple's three children. "He was the most incredible man in the world," she said of her father. "He was a fantastic husband, and a wonderful, wonderful father."

Although Paulucci was known worldwide, he said in a 2003 interview that he viewed himself as a poor kid from Hibbing. "I'm just a peddler from the Iron Range," he said.

Paulucci built several food empires, including Chun King, Jeno's Inc. and Luigino's Inc. (now known as Michelina's Inc.).

But he didn't fit any mold. "Sometimes it's a little hard to figure out who he is," friend and former employee Don Mason once said.

Jeno could be a giving, loyal friend or a feared enemy who fired employees at will, skewered opponents with obscenities or took out full-page newspaper ads denouncing people and policies he disagreed with. His temper was the stuff of many stories. "I've never gone through life worrying what people think of me," Jeno said.

He frequently settled disputes in court. Usually they dealt with business matters, not always. In 2005 he sued his own daughter, Gina Paulucci.

But he also had a generous side. He set up a foundation to help the poor. He often helped friends in need. He contributed countless hours to using his influence with the powerful for the betterment of Duluth and Sanford, Fla., where he lived during the winter.

Humble beginnings

The man everyone knew as Jeno was born July 7, 1918, in Aurora. His mother, Michelina, and father, Ettore, Italian immigrants, named him Luigino Francesco Paolucci.

His father was an iron miner who was injured during Jeno's childhood and couldn't work.

After the family, including his older sister, Elizabeth, moved to Hibbing, he lived in poverty and amid the chaos of an illegal drinking establishment in his own house. He picked up coal spilled along the railroad tracks to heat the house.

He started in the food business at age 12 at the Daylight Economy Market in Hibbing.

After graduating from Hibbing High School in 1935, first he sold groceries for C.A. Pearson Wholesale and then became a traveling salesman for St. Paul-based wholesale grocer Hancock Nelson Mercantile, where he claims he earned more money than the company's owner.

Nine years later, he began growing bean sprouts in Duluth, and then founded Duluth-based Chun King, a line of canned Chinese food.

Jeno would do almost anything to sell his products. He and friends tell a classic tale about his efforts to sell to the Food Fair grocery chain in 1948, where he had lost an account.

Jeno's autobiography tells the tale like this: The chain's top buyer agreed to compare Chun King's products with a competitor's. Jeno opened a can of Chun King Chinese vegetables and was horrified to find a dead grasshopper.

Before the buyer could see or take a sample, Jeno popped the grasshopper into his mouth with some vegetables and swallowed. The buyer was none the wiser and Food Fair became one of Chun King's biggest customers.

He called his autobiography "Sometimes You Have to Eat the Grasshopper."

Egg rolls to pizza rolls

In 1966, Jeno sold Chun King to R.J. Reynolds Foods Inc. for $63 million.

Two years later, he became the first chairman of R.J. Reynolds Food Co. But corporate culture didn't agree with his independent spirit and he soon went back to building another business of his own that he called Jeno's Inc.

The new company made a popular new frozen finger-food snack called pizza rolls and, at one time, grew to be Duluth's largest employer.

In 1985, he sold Jeno's to Pillsbury for $135 million.

Then he turned his attention to Florida real estate, where he built the planned community of Heathrow, near Orlando, from the ground up.

He sold it in 1992 for $50 million plus an undisclosed settlement from a lawsuit over the deal.

Jeno was 72 in 1990 when his noncompete agreement with Pillsbury expired and he began yet another company, Luigino's Inc., which made frozen, microwaveable entrees and snacks.

Age didn't deter Jeno from working long days and a punishing schedule to build the company into what was estimated in 2004 to be a $300 million-a-year-plus firm with international scope.

In 2004, he turned over the day-to-day operations to his management team, but he said emphatically he was not retiring. Instead, he said he wanted to build yet another food company.

Jeno also had business flops. In the 1960s, he gave up on his Wilderness Valley Farms, which grew vegetables for Chun King near Zim.

Pizza Kwik -- a company that sold equipment and ingredients to pizzerias -- and China Kwik, based on the same concept, failed, he said in his autobiography.

Nine of his 10 Pasta Lovers restaurants closed, as did Pasta Bowl Inc.

In the 2003 interview, he said that a guess of a half-billion dollars for his net worth was "in the ballpark."

Never part of establishment

Jeno's independence kept him from becoming part of the Duluth establishment.

Even so, he created, or had a strong hand in creating, half a dozen or more civic organizations, including Northeast Minnesota Organization for Economic Education, the Jeno & Lois Paulucci Family Foundation and the National Italian American Foundation.

He worked on community projects such as helping local youth hockey teams and spearheading the Minnesota Taconite Amendment as a way to save the iron mining industry. In 2006, he continued his long-term campaign to raise the federal minimum wage, which he called "a damned disgrace at $5.15 an hour."

He considered his work to make the Duluth Arena-Auditorium (Duluth Entertainment Convention Center) a reality to be his greatest public service.

Jeno was chairman for Nixon nationwide in 1972. A political independent, he said he had advisory relationships with seven U.S. presidents. He headed flood and earthquake relief efforts in Italy in 1976 and 1980 on behalf of the United States.

He once convinced officials of Ernst & Young's World Entrepreneur of the Year competition to conduct a debate among finalists about how to use their economic influence for world peace.

The Paulucci Family Foundation, according to the IRS Form 990 filed for 2004 (the most recent available), had $2.2 million in funds. Publicly, the foundation has financed a large portion of Duluth's Bayfront Festival Park and donated holiday turkeys to local food shelves. Much of its work has been done privately.

"He shares his good fortune with his friends," high school chum Tom Dougherty of Dougherty Funeral Home in Duluth said in a News Tribune interview once. Jeno treated him and several friends to many hunting and fishing trips as far away as the Northwest Territories in Canada.

Jeno also flew former classmates to Hibbing High School class of 1935 reunions -- classmates who wouldn't otherwise be able to attend.

He performed many other unpublicized acts of charity, from taking on workers who weren't considered employable to helping rehabilitate convicted felons.

Jeno Paulucci is survived by son Michael J. (Joan) Paulucci of Palm Coast, Fla.; daughters Cynthia (Robert) Selton of Longwood, Fla., and Gina Paulucci of Wayzata, Minn.; four grandchildren; and numerous great-grandchildren.

News Tribune staff writer John Lundy contributed to this report.