COLUMN: ‘Peddler from the Range’ leaves great mark, complicated legacy

This is my Sunday column for the Dec. 4, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. On the same page of the newspaper my old neighbor from town days wrote a more detailed account of Paulucci’s history.

‘Peddler from the Range’ leaves great mark, complicated legacy
By Aaron J. Brown

Early Thanksgiving 2011 Jeno Paulucci passed away just four days after the loss of his wife Lois.

At 93 the Iron Range and Duluth business icon’s impact on the modern food business generally and northern Minnesota specifically were already secure in the history books. Paulucci founded several successful businesses and a few failed ones. He lost some money, but made a whole lot more. He was a forceful personality in the region, his passionate advocacy and caustic stubbornness earning friends and foes in more or less equal amounts.

Paulucci would later describe himself as just “a peddler from the Iron Range.” Growing up on the Range in the ‘80s and ‘90s, my earliest memories of him were simply that he was always on the news – his name like a city or body of water.

Our first apartment was on Third Avenue in Hibbing, the town that moved for mining in the ’20s and so well personifies the people and history of the Iron Range region. Across the street from our place was a tiny house by today’s standards. This little house would not have stuck out in my memory if someone hadn’t later told me it was the site of one of Paulucci’s first businesses, his family’s grocery store.

At age 12, with a father unable to work after a mining accident, Paulucci hustled produce and product for the largely immigrant population of a booming company town that was becoming more independent. From those years forward Paulucci would make selling food and taking risks his life’s work, becoming a multi-millionaire by the 1960s. Paulucci built, sold and rebuilt companies like tinker toys, pausing along the way to help people out or render his political opinion, sometimes in the form of a blistering full page newspaper advertisement.

And by now it still seems odd to me that a man with so much influence, with such strong allies and enemies, could pass with so little notice.

There tend to be two kinds of native attitudes about the Iron Range in this modern era. Some hold deep pride in their Range upbringing, nostalgic for the endurance of economic ups and downs. Others burn with resentment over the lack of change and adaptability of the place, an idea that often manifests politically.

In both cases, growing up on the Range follows you around, in some ways defines the rest of your life even if you endeavor to forget it. Paulucci somehow found himself in both groups, ever proud but never satisfied with the Range, Duluth or, it sometimes seemed, anything.

Unlike another famous, influential former Hibbing resident, Paulucci always lived at least part-time in Minnesota. Bob Dylan left Hibbing, famously set out for the coast and achieved world fame, only to admit in recent years that the tumult he felt here on the Range would later define him. I mention Dylan only because when you mention his fame and accomplishments to some locals, one of the most common retorts is, well yeah, what about Jeno Paulucci?

Paulucci held tight to a characteristic we could use more of these days: drive. While Jeno could play humble, he was very sharp and opportunistic. He took flak for times he took a stab at economic development in Duluth or the Range, but unlike the Range or Duluth (at times) he moved on and tried new things, always and again.

I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Paulucci. My only contact was a mildly consternated letter from him over an editorial I wrote years ago – not even the full treatment. But with his passing I do believe we can add meaning to his legacy, indeed to the legacy of generations of immigrants who climbed the social ladder made possible in places like this. We can reestablish our drive toward something better for our kids.

The work wasn’t finished in Paulucci’s lifetime, nor will we be able to finish it ourselves. But that’s no reason to stop trying. Trying is the whole point.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range who teaches at Hibbing Community College. He is author of the blog and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.

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