By Adelle Whitefoot
Smart, witty, energetic — larger than life. These were just a few words used to describe Tom Rukavina and the life he devoted to helping others.
Rukavina, 68, died Jan. 7 as a result of a yearlong battle with leukemia. Rukavina died at University of Minnesota Medical Center, where he was being treated to receive a bone marrow transplant. On Saturday, more than 550 people filled the pews and overflow room at the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Virginia to pay tribute to Rukavina’s life.
Rukavina’s son Victor Rukavina joked it wasn’t always easy being a child of Tom Rukavina, calling him “a hardass.”
“But under that tough love and rough demeanor we all knew was a very loving individual who cared greatly about his family, friends, constituents and all working class people,” Victor Rukavina said. “And Tim Pawlenty, he even cared about you.”
Former Gov. Pawlenty was just one of many political figures who paid their respects Saturday in Virginia. Among them were current Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Sen. Tina Smith, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, former Rep. Rick Nolan and many more. Most noticeably absent from the service was former St. Louis County Commissioner and current Eighth Congressional District Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Duluth.
Tom Rukavina, DFL-Pike Township, was first elected to the House District 5A seat in 1986. He often made up for his lack of physical size — he was about 5 feet, 3 inches tall — with an explosive personality as he battled for Democratic causes from organized labor to social programs to public funding for economic development.
Legislatively, Rukavina may be best known for shepherding to passage bills requiring mining companies to keep their plants intact and maintained during the shutdowns, even bankruptcies, of the 1980s. That allowed all of the plants to re-open, sometimes after multiple shutdowns during economic downturns.
When he retired from the House, Rukavina cited as successes a $50 million endowment at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute and a new mining studies scholarship offered at University of Minnesota campuses, all funded by royalties from taconite mining on university-owned lands on the Range. And he was a supporter of engineering programs and Mesabi Range Community and Technical College.
Rukavina got his political start on the Virginia School Board and Pike Town Board in the 1970s. He lost his first DFL primary race for Legislature in 1982 but then won in 1986 when the incumbent, Dom Elioff, left the primary race. Before becoming a full-time lawmaker, he worked as a logger and as a naturalist at the Ironworld Discovery Center in Chisholm, and he worked for a time at the Minntac taconite plant and as an assistant director at Giants Ridge Golf and Ski Resort. He ran unsuccessfully for the DFL convention endorsement for governor in 2010.
He ran for an open seat on the St. Louis County Board in 2014, easily gaining victory for the district that covers the northern half of the giant county.
Victor Rukavina told stories about his father’s political career and how as kids, his sister and he were expected to help out. Their favorite task was fielding messages and phone calls.
“Remember, this was before cell phones and our home phone was basically another office phone,” Victor Rukavina said. “We would not only take notes and transcribe answering machine messages for him, but we would also talk with constituents who oftentimes seemed oblivious to fact that they were speaking to children. Imagine being a 10-year-old getting yelled at about my dad’s position on a certain bill or his pro-choice stance and having to explain to them that I was still in fourth grade.”
Victor Rukavina said this gave him and his sister a unique and wonderful life.
“It truly gave us a unique view into our small chunk of the world and an early education into how complex difficult, insignificant and often humorous our lives can be,” he said.
Tom Rukavina’s younger brother also spoke at the service telling humorous stories from their childhood as well as how he came to devote his life to public service.
“Our parents were union members, active in the DFL and active in the Catholic church,” Mark Rukavina said. “Hard work, honesty, integrity and social justice were our family’s values and Tom internalized these values and devoted his life to fighting for working people and caring for all.”
Mark Rukavina said Tom Rukavina cared so much for others that even while going through treatment at the hospital, he took time to write thank-you notes to everyone who called, prayed, sent photographs or get-well cards.
“Now I don’t want you to leave here with the impression that my brother was a saint. He wasn’t and I have the scars to prove it,” Mark Rukavina joked. “You know Tom had a way with words, and he could be quite compelling. So much so that he convinced me as a young boy that I was adopted, and if he didn’t behave our parents would send me back.”
Mark Rukavina loved his brother very much and said he “really can’t imagine life without Tommy.”
“I just want to say, Tommy, there will never be a brother who loves his brother more than I do,” he said.