D. Merlino, 61, leader of Democrats

Posted: April 22, 2005

Dianne Gravino Merlino, 61, of Secane, former chair of the Democratic Party in Delaware County and an advocate for special-needs children, died of cancer Monday at home.

Mrs. Merlino headed the county Democratic Party from 1984 to 1994. She served as chair of the party's Southeastern Pennsylvania Caucus for 10 years and was a delegate to five Democratic National Conventions. She was former chair of the Ridley Township Democratic Party. In 1995 she cohosted "Left, Right Center," a radio program about political issues broadcast on WBEB-FM (101.1).

In Delaware County, Republicans had been in power since the Civil War and were highly organized and savvy in the use of power and patronage. Although county voter registrations favored the Republicans by almost three to one while Mrs. Merlino was party chair, she strategized how she could help her party.

During presidential elections, she told an interviewer in 1988, her job was to keep the numbers down so that if the Republican Party candidate won the county, it would be by a small majority. A large enough Democratic vote elsewhere - with the help of a smaller-than-usual GOP margin in the county, she said - would throw all of Pennsylvania's Electoral College votes to the Democratic candidate.

Her husband, Harry, said his wife began her political career as a Democratic committeewoman.

"The Republicans were telling people what was best for them," he said. "Dianne believed people should be able to decide that for themselves."

Sometimes she disagreed with her own party too, he said, and in recent years she had successfully run against endorsed candidates for Democratic committeewoman and for a position on the state committee.

Mrs. Merlino grew up in South Philadelphia and in Springfield. After graduating from Notre Dame High School in Moylan, she attended Keystone Business College in Springfield, then worked as a secretary for lawyers in Delaware County. She and Harry Merlino married in 1966. The couple met at the Jersey Shore.

Before moving to Secane in the late 1970s, the Merlinos lived in the Leedom section of Ridley Park. Mrs. Merlino served on the Leedom-Crum Lynn Halloween Parade Committee for 10 years and was active with the Leedom School PTA.

She was active with the Delaware County Intermediate Unit, which provides special-education services to public schools, and chaired the unit's task force. Mrs. Merlino's daughter is visually impaired, and a son is dyslexic. Her daughter, Linda, said her mother wanted to help all children with disabilities.

Mrs. Merlino was former chair and current board member of the Chester Economic Development Committee. From 1986 until 1993, she was deputy director of the Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Fund. She was a manager at Kohl's department store in Media from 1997 until becoming ill last fall.

She and her husband were active with the marriage encounter and pre-Canna groups at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Secane.

Her daughter said her mother enjoyed decorating keepsake boxes and straw hats for gifts and loved taking photographs of her grandchildren.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Merlino is survived by sons Harry Jr. and Christopher; two sisters; seven children; and a great-grandson.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at Media Borough Community Center, Jackson and Monroe Streets, Media. Friends may call at 1 p.m.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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