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Originally published April 20, 2013 at 2:12 PM | Page modified April 20, 2013 at 6:23 PM

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Dorothy Oberto, ‘company mom’ and free spirit, dies at 79

Dorothy Oberto was “the heart and soul” of the family jerky-making business for nearly six decades.

Seattle Times business reporter

Dorothy Oberto might be called the first lady of Oberto Sausage Co., but her role in the family jerky-making business extended beyond being owner Art Oberto’s wife.

Tom Ennis, president and CEO of the Kent-based company, said employees often referred to Mrs. Oberto as the “company mom.”

“She was the glue that held everything together,” Ennis said, “the heart and soul of the company.”

Although her demeanor, rainbow-colored spectacles and sweaters made the CEO feel like he worked for his grandmother, Mrs. Oberto was “a sharp cookie,” Ennis said. “Never underestimate her.”

Mrs. Oberto died April 1 at age 79.

After marrying Art Oberto in 1954, Mrs. Oberto stood by the company from its days in her in-laws’ basement to its expansion into a leading national jerky manufacturer.

Mrs. Oberto declared herself the “vice president of chaos,” Larry Oberto said, and held chaos in the highest regard. When a business plan went awry or a plane was delayed, she would remind others of her motto: “Life is an adventure.”

And “her extension of adventure was vast,” said her son, citing as an example the art she accumulated. At Oberto, said Ennis, one wall features brilliantly colored works from renowned artists LeRoy Neiman and Peter Max, next to a poster depicting a jungle scene that she bought at a flea market.

She frequently hosted parties, and liked to assign the guests cups of specific colors to indicate at which table they should sit, “to get them to intermingle, and to share experiences outside of their normal circle,” Larry Oberto said.

Even more than people, she loved new people, so she always strategically placed herself near unfamiliar faces. When others asked if she wanted to sit next to her husband, she would reply: “Why? I see him all the time.”

After her husband stepped down as Oberto president in 1983, she still came in to sign checks, decorate the offices and spread the family spirit.

Ennis said Mrs. Oberto, wagging her finger jokingly, would instruct him to “make sure you’re taking care of the Millies on the line,” meaning the hourly workers in the plant.

“They were an extension of her family,” said Larry Oberto, who serves on the Oberto board of directors.

When a challenging decision was to be made within the family or in the company, Mrs. Oberto acted as judge and enforcer, said her son.

Yet, by all accounts, she was a relentless free spirit. Mrs. Oberto believed life is better enjoyed without shoes. An old photo features Mrs. Oberto smiling, barefoot, next to her husband and a six-foot-tall snowman.

A frequent traveler who proudly proclaimed she adventured rather than vacationed, she had planned with her husband to travel to the North Pole later this year.

She loved to bake — German chocolate cake, breadsticks, doughnuts — not for the sake of baking itself, but for the act of baking for other people. After all, people were her passion.

Among her many favorite catchphrases was: “Funerals are for the living.”

In that spirit, after filling St. James Cathedral in her honor on April 13, about 100 of the 500 attendees marched with Art Oberto and a steel-drum band down to the Paramount Theatre, said Larry Oberto. The sign outside read “Dorothy Oberto’s Life’s an Adventure Tour.”

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Oberto is survived by her children Laura, Steve, Larry and Jimi, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Alysa Hullett: 206-464-2718 or ahullett@seattletimes.com

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