Share story

A friend said he was “like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ ’s dad,” someone who always took care of everybody else, a business owner and community organizer who raised money for multiple-sclerosis research and volunteered as a Seafair commodore.

Gene Merlino, who friends said was an old-school gentleman, died at home in North Seattle on July 29. He was 100.

Mr. Merlino leaves a legacy of connections and grass-roots business sense that twice brought him White House recognition.

In 1979, he was the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Washington State Small Business Person of the Year and was invited to the White House to meet President Carter. In the 1980s, he was one of 10 small-business owners in the country to be honored and went back to the White House to meet President Reagan.

Gary Beck, who knew Mr. Merlino for the past 25 years and likened him to the Ward Cleaver family-man of sitcom fame, called him “a gentle soul,’’ who was “quick to help anyone who needed help.’’

Mr. Merlino was a member of the Seattle Executives Club, an organization of business owners who meet to exchange business tips with one another. He was an active member in Seattle’s Italian community and in 2001 received the Gill A. Centioli Award for achievement and dedication to the Italian community.

He also founded the annual Multiple Sclerosis Association of King County Golf Tournament Charity Dinner and Auction, helping to raise $4 million, his family said.

Mr. Merlino grew up one of five boys on Beacon Hill, the son of Italian immigrants, John and Columba Merlino. He began his business career when he was only 8, selling newspapers to supplement the family income.

He was so small that his brothers would lean over and he’d scamper across their backs to get through the crowd of newsboys clambering to get the newspapers coming off the press conveyor belt, his daughter, Jean Merlino, recalled. He’d grab a bundle and hand it off to his brothers, and they’d be first out on the street, selling the news to customers at Seattle’s restaurants.

“That’s where he got his business acumen,’’ she said.

He later went to work for his uncle Angelo Merlino’s Italian grocery, delivering rice to gambling establishments in Chinatown. He was often invited in to eat, his daughter said, and formed lifelong friends and future customers.

Mr. Merlino graduated from Franklin High School in 1931. Six years later he married Inky Fiorito, whom he met at an Italian community picnic and dance. They were married 75 years. She died last year.

At the beginning of their lives together they bought a service station on Airport Way South, and Mr. Merlino went to merchants in Chinatown and personally asked them to patronize his new business, Jean Merlino said.

“He’d go pick up their cars, service them and bring them back,’’ she said.

Eventually, Mr. Merlino expanded his business to 10 stations.

His friend Dennis Caldirola recalled being a child in the 1950s and with his father visiting Mr. Merlino at one of the gas stations.

“In the basement there was a narrow room under some … steps. We went downstairs and he had a row of washers and driers lined up. He said: ‘We’re going to put them in apartment buildings and charge people a quarter to wash their laundry.’ On the way home my dad told me: ‘That’s never going to work.’ … It’s good he didn’t listen to my dad.”

In 1957, Mr. Merlino founded American Meter Machine (now American Meter & Appliance), a commercial laundry business, and every night he and his wife would count the day’s receipts.

He never truly retired and, until five years ago, continued to go into the office on Westlake Avenue North, make a few phone calls and greet a few people before returning home several hours later, his daughter said.

“He always wanted to be active. He was never one to sit on the sidelines,’’ she said.

Family was the most important thing in his life, and he devoted himself not only to his wife and three children but frequently golfed with his brothers.

“They really enjoyed each other,’’ Jean Merlino said.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his son, Paul; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren — all of Seattle. He was preceded in death by his wife; his son Jim; and his brothers Jasper, Baldi, Sandy and Ernie.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Christ the King Catholic Church, 405 N. 117th St.,with a reception following. Interment will be at Holyrood Cemetery.

Memorial donations can be sent to the American Heart Association, 710 Second Ave., No. 900, Seattle, WA 98104, or Seattle University Athletics Department, 901 12th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or