Hometown Focus

By Tucker Nelson

VIRGINIA — Tom Rukavina and I were in the same room a time or two, and I saw him in 4th of July parades, but we never talked to each other. I also never voted for him—I couldn’t have because of my age and county commissioner district. Current and former coworkers at Hometown Focus are far more qualified to tell you about who Tom was, and they all remember him fondly.

Tom Rukavina, a passionate Democratic Farmer-Labor public servant for decades, died of leukemia in January 2019 at the age of 68. Later that year, the Minnesota Legislature approved naming the Highway 53 bridge east of Virginia in his memory. The bridge, completed in 2017, was built when Highway 53 was relocated to accommodate United Taconite’s expanding mine. A dedication ceremony scheduled for 2020 was postponed due to COVID-19.
When I attended the dedication of the Representative Thomas Rukavina Memorial Bridge on August 19, I was surrounded by Tom’s family and friends, as well as current and former legislators and government employees. Speakers at the ceremony helped me get to know a man who made a strong impression on all who knew him. Several commented on how, despite his short physical stature, it was fitting for Minnesota’s tallest bridge to commemorate his legacy.

Master of ceremonies Gary Cerkvenik read the next of a new plaque at Bridge View Park:

There was a time, my friends, when nearly every Iron Ranger knew of a passionate, creative, feisty, and fun state representative named Tom Rukavina. Time moves on. But this message speaks to the memory of Tom Rukavina: father, husband, grandfather, logger, union steelworker, milkman, school board member, township officer, state representative, county commissioner, and advocate for the people.

Tom Rukavina believed in the dignity of all work, loved the history and peoples of the Iron Range, and dedicated his life towards improving opportunities for all. He was true to his working-class roots, to his family and friends, and most of all to the Iron Range: a place where immigrants and citizens came from different backgrounds with different beliefs to create a place we all love and call home.

Tom Rukavina lived a big life for big reasons, and this big bridge stands in his name.

The guest speakers who followed described their colleague and friend as feisty, sweet, and honest. If Tom Rukavina didn’t like and respect you, they said, he wouldn’t yell at you. He was passionate and outspoken, and he believed love could solve everything. Minnesota Sen. David Tomassoni said Tom’s heart was “as big as the Hull Rust.”

“He would be able to capture people’s lives and what we need to do for seemingly esoteric policies like building bridges,” U. S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. “He was able to put it in the real world, the real lives of people.”

Sen. Klobuchar said naming the bridge after him was “a perfect tribute to his towering legacy.”

Tom himself had described the bridge this way: “It’s only fitting that the Iron Range, after building America and building all the bridges in the Twin Cities, should have the tallest bridge in Minnesota.”

Minnesota Rep. Dave Lislegard considered former Rep. Rukavina a mentor and an inspiration. “This bridge signifies who Tom was: bigger than life, American made, union, joining communities together,” he said. “The history and traditions of the Iron Range run as deep as the minerals under our feet, and there’s no one who knew that better than Tom Rukavina.”

Minnesota Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, who served in the House with Rep. Rukavina for eight years, described Tom as witty, funny, and devoted to the Iron Range. He knew how to promote his beliefs while remaining friends with his political opponents.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher described a memorable moment while she was advocating for funding for Orchestra Hall and Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis. She introduced Tom Rukavina to Minnesota Orchestra conductor Osmo Vonska—and the two had a 15-minute conversation in Finnish. (Tom’s obituary said his stint as a milkman in the Tower area was one reason a Croatian/Italian learned Finnish.)

Tom was a passionate orator both at a lectern and with friends, but his love of storytelling led to another funny anecdote recounted by former Minnesota Rep. Jason Metsa, now deputy commissioner of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation. Metsa said while legislators were touring the new bridge in 2017, Tom walked a full circle in the midst of a conversation, inadvertently stepping in wet paint along the way. For the bridge dedication ceremony, MnDOT provided a large photograph showing Tom and his white footprints on the bridge pavement.

“Some people only saw the public side of my dad in a suit and tie once he started serving as a legislator elected in 1997,” said Ida Rukavina, Tom’s daughter. “They didn’t know his other side that he loved: being in the woods, smelling of chainsaw oil, cutting lumber with his good buddy Roger, or spending hours in his garden.”

Ida, the ceremony’s final speaker, reflected on her father’s Iron Range pride, his commitment to union workers and the service industry, and who he was outside the political world. Ida was recently hired as the executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS), where she, too, can be a voice for the Range (see p. 54 for more information about her new position).

“For over 30 years, he served in public office, and he wouldn’t have wanted a different life,” Ida remarked. “I know today he would want all of us to reflect on the way we can each make a difference— the way each of us can improve our communities in our own way.”