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Monday, December 2, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guido Merlino, Macaroni King And Pillar Of Italian Community

Guido P. Merlino chose a tough time to go into business.

It was 1932, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, and many friends questioned his judgment in starting the Mission Macaroni Co.

His company not only survived the hard times, it grew within a decade to be the dominant macaroni producer in the Northwest.

As Mr. Merlino later told his brother-in-law, Joe Forte, "There are two businesses to be in. One is the food business because people always have to eat. And the other is the funeral-parlor business because people are going to die."

Mr. Merlino, a long-time business and community leader among Seattle's Italian-Americans, died of cancer at his Mercer Island home Thanksgiving Day. He was 88.

His Horatio Alger-style success story began with emigration at age 17 from Taranta Peligna, Italy, to Fresno, Calif. There, in 1920, he joined his brother, Dominic, and attended English and U.S. citizenship classes.

After moving to Seattle, he joined cousins Joe Merlino and John Madonna as an owner of Pacific Coast Macaroni Co., which opened a pasta factory on Rainier Avenue South and marketed its product under the label "Three Monks."

In 1928, he married Laura Forte, the daughter of a woman who had worked for his mother in Italy.

Mr. Merlino sold his interest in Pacific Coast Macaroni and the young couple moved to California, where he helped his brother start a macaroni business.

After returning to the Italian-American community in Seattle's Rainier Valley, Mr. Merlino and Michael Pesce founded Mission Macaroni. The company grew quickly, taking over Seattle Macaroni in 1939 and Pacific Coast Macaroni three years later.

Under Mr. Merlino's aggressive marketing, Mission Macaroni became one of the Northwest's first television advertisers, sponsoring broadcasts of "The Cisco Kid" and "Highway Patrol."

"He was a go-getter from the word go. He kept up with the changing times. He didn't have a mindset where, `This is it,' and that's it. He rolled with the punches and he always rolled the right way, apparently," said his brother-in-law, Aldo Ferrari.

Mr. Merlino sold Mission Macaroni to the San Francisco-based Golden Grain Macaroni Co. in 1956 but worked for the company as a marketing consultant for another 12 years. Golden Grain was bought by Quaker Oats in 1986.

He later helped his nephew, Ernest Merlino, establish Merlino's Macaroni and Western Family Macaroni.

Described by brother-in-law Forte as "one of the pillars" of the Italian-American community centered around South Atlantic Street and Rainier Avenue South, Mr. Merlino played a key role in a successful fund-raising campaign to save Casa Italiana, a community center, in the 1930s.

Active in the Italian Independent Society, Sons of Italy, the Italian Club and the Italian Community Club, Mr. Merlino kept his ties with Taranta Peligna.

He returned to his hometown eight times since 1949, taking his children and grandchildren on his trips, which were timed to coincide with the festival of Our Lady of the Valley held in early July.

"He was hoping to hold out until July," said his granddaughter, Margaret White. "He wanted to go back one more time."

Mr. Merlino left a bequest to support the festival.

He and his wife were strong advocates of separate state schools for the deaf. They took pride in the accomplishments of their children, Robert F. Merlino and Virginia Cunningham, both graduates of Gallaudet College, a prestigious Washington, D.C., college for the deaf.

When their granddaughter, Laurie Merlino, a future University of Washington basketball star, joined her high-school basketball team, the proud grandfather took a sudden interest in the sport.

"I had never seen him at a basketball game until Laurie was on the team in high school. He sure learned about basketball quick," Forte recalled.

Mr. Merlino is survived by his wife, Laura; a son, Robert F. Merlino of Vancouver, Wash.; a daughter, Virginia Cunningham of Mercer Island; a sister, Rosina Rotunno of Seattle; seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Rosary will be said at 7 p.m. today and a funeral Mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, both at St. Monica's Catholic Church on Mercer Island. Interment will be in Calvary Mausoleum.

The family suggests memorials be given to the American Cancer Society.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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