Hard work. Family. Community.
All describe what Iron Range native and entrepreneur Jeno Paulucci valued most in life. The long-time advocate for social justice died on Thanksgiving morning, just four days after the passing of his wife and fellow philanthropist Lois Trepanier Paulucci.
Luigino Francesco Paulucci, known simply as Jeno to those of us in northeastern Minnesota, was born in the mining town of Aurora in 1918 and his story is similar to others in the region. His parents were immigrants from a small mining town in Italy who saw an opportunity for a better life for the next generation in the rich red ore of the Iron Range. And like many others, the Paulucci family endured incredible hardships in their new country. They quickly found that the Steel Trust controlled every aspect of life and that the new immigrants were viewed as less than human and quite expendable. When the miners attempted to advocate for fair wages and safer working conditions, the mining companies did not hesitate to shut down the mines in retaliation, a practice that served to remind the miners how dependent they were on them for survival. Cave-ins and other accidents claimed many lives and countless other miners were injured, with many left unable to work. These deaths and injuries as well as sporadic employment caused significant economic hardship for the families. All family members pitched in to survive, with many women taking jobs and cooking for the numerous bachelors working in the mines and children doing whatever they could.
Jeno’s childhood was not unusual for those living on the Iron Range at that time. When his father was disabled in a mining accident, they relocated to a 4-room house near Oliver Mining in Hibbing. His mother opened a grocery store in the front room of their small home and also cooked meals for bachelor miners. Like other Range children, Jeno did his part with a job unloading boxcars and gathering coal along the railroad tracks to heat the house. In addition, the Pauluccis bootlegged wine and ran an illegal bar out of their home during Prohibition. This is not as scandalous as it may seem; for all intents and purposes, Prohibition did not exist on the Iron Range and many families engaged in similar practices both in order to survive and to preserve their cultural traditions. In fact, another famous Iron Ranger, Oscar Mondavi of Virginia, got his start in the wine business during the same period of time.
It was in this environment of deprivation and domination by the mining companies that young Jeno began his career as an entrepreneur by selling iron ore samples to tourists, relying on his own ingenuity rather than another for a source of income. Hard work was necessary to survive on the Iron Range, and Jeno continued to work until the end of his life. Unlike other millionaires, that drive came not from greed, but likely from a Ranger’s fear that it all could be gone tomorrow.
Indeed, the kind of poverty and oppression endured by those early miners tends to stay with one for a lifetime. Paulucci lived his Iron Range values throughout his career, supporting unions in his businesses and long advocating for an increase in the minimum wage:
The federal minimum wage is a damned disgrace….The minimum wage should be raised at least 50 percent and then pegged to the cost of living.
He also insisted that businesses must give back to the community:
I would like to impress on the business community that they not only derive a measure of power and prestige as leaders within their community, they also acquire a degree of responsibility to use those advantages for the common good.
Businesses large and small should dedicate up to 5 percent of pretax profits for projects that would benefit the general public, from tearing down rat-infested buildings to replacing them with low-cost housing and day care centers — without waiting for the government to do it, at higher cost.
Beyond that, businessmen need to reach out to the disadvantaged — the so-called unemployables. Hire them and train them, turn them into loyal workers and contributors to the economy. I’ve been doing that for more than 40 years and believe me, it works.
Indeed, Jeno never forgot how important jobs are and took great care to hire those with disabilities, criminal records and others turned away by most employers. And he did so before it became popular, earning the United States Employer of the Year award from the President’s Council on Employment of the Handicapped and the National Association of Manufacturers in 1972. His reason was simple:
What more can you want to do for someone?
I remember Jeno as a man with a contagious laugh, strong convictions and great passion. Occasionally, that passion got the better of him, leading to many stories about his legendary temper. But that same passion was reflected in his determination to fulfill the obligation to work for the common good so deeply ingrained in Iron Range culture.
Paulucci has often been criticized for speaking his mind on various subjects and for his practice of taking out full-page newspaper ads if he didn’t like a certain public policy or what the newspaper wrote, or if he felt a government official was an obstructionist. This too can perhaps be traced to his Iron Range roots. The early mining families found themselves completely at the mercy of the mining companies and had absolutely no voice against the powerful Steel Trust, which also controlled government officials and, until Veda Ponikvar established the Chisholm Free Press in 1947, the newspapers. Well, a kid from one of those families who had suffered so many injustices finally had the ability to speak out and it’s not surprising that he did so,frequently going against the grain and advocating for community activism, trade unions and philanthropy. And who could argue that his full-page ads supporting the Taconite Amendment weren’t for the common good?
Despite his incredible successes, Jeno Paulucci remained true to his roots, describing himself as “just a peddler from the Iron Range.” Whether it was acting as a presidential emissary to evaluate disasters in Italy, sending water to victims of Hurricane Katrina, or creating union jobs, the outspoken Ranger was simply too busy fulfilling his obligation to make a better life for others to worry about what people thought of him. It seems appropriate he and Lois should pass at this time of thanksgiving, for they remained ever mindful of their humble beginnings and thankful for their many blessings.
There is hardly an organization or a project in northeastern Minnesota that the Pauluccis haven’t contributed to in some way, from the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, Bayfront Park, Canal Park and the Hibbing Planetarium to the region’s food shelves and battered women’s shelters, and we are all the poorer for their loss.
We need more people like them in this world.