VIRGINIA— Hundreds of people from around the state made a pilgrimage, of sorts, to Holy Spirit Catholic Church here this past Saturday to pay homage to a true Iron Ranger. Gov. Tim Walz, former Gov. …
VIRGINIA— Hundreds of people from around the state made a pilgrimage, of sorts, to Holy Spirit Catholic Church here this past Saturday to pay homage to a true Iron Ranger. Gov. Tim Walz, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Minnesota’s U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith were there. Congressmen, former Congressmen, legislators and former legislators, from both sides of the aisle, were among the estimated 700 people who turned out to remember Tom Rukavina, who died far too young earlier this month of a rare form of leukemia.
He was 68.
While the throng of politicians at Saturday’s funeral reflected Rukavina’s longtime political connections, it was the average folks, whose lives Rukavina had touched in some way over the years, who filled the church hall to overflowing and heard mostly personal recollections of his less public life, as a father, a brother, and a loyal friend.
Rukavina’s son Vic recalled a father who forced his children to grow up early. “A lot of you knew what a hard-ass he could be… can I say that in a Catholic church?” Vic said. “But underneath that tough love and rough demeanor we all knew was a very loving individual who cared greatly about his family, his friends, constituents, and working-class people,” said Vic. “And Tim Pawlenty, he even cared about you,” he added, prompting plenty of laughter as he made note of the former governor, long one of Rukavina’s favorite political targets, who was seated near the front.
Vic described life growing up on the rural Pike Township homestead that has been the family’s base of operations for decades. Besides the many chores typical of rural life, he remembers how he and his sister Ida were responsible for handling constituent phone calls that came to their home phone when their father was at the Legislature in St. Paul, or off at some other political function. “We would not only take notes and transcribe answering machine messages for him, we would also talk with constituents, who oftentimes seemed oblivious to the fact they were speaking to children,” he recalled.
Vic recalled the many things he learned from his father, including lessons of his roots, how to work in the woods, and even, unintentionally, how to swear to Croatian, which nearly gave his grandfather Benny a heart attack. “You taught me to respect my elders and my community. You taught me the trees and the wild animals on our property. You taught us how to grow food, to hunt, to fish, and to be sustainable. You taught me about camping in the beautiful Boundary Waters.” And in a reflection of Rukavina’s political philosophy, Vic recalled: “You taught us that the janitor who cleans the hospital is just as important as the doctor who practices medicine there.”
Rukavina’s brother Mark recalled what it was like growing up with an older brother who seemed to take pleasure, at times, in tormenting his younger sibling, whom Tom nicknamed “Cry Baby.”
“And then he did things to me that ensured that I lived up to the name,” Mark said.
It was a personality trait that seemed to follow Rukavina, who relished tweaking fellow politicians, throughout his political career. “Growing up, it was not lost on me that Tommy didn’t really have the rule thing down,” said Mark. “He was mischievous and he excelled at challenging our parents.” Rukavina had also, at one point, convinced his younger brother that he had been adopted and that if he didn’t behave, his parent would send Mark back. “And I still loved the guy,” said Mark, suggesting it might have been an example of “Stockhom syndrome.”
Mark told of their childhood on Virginia’s north side and how they could listen, for hours, to the stories of the Croatian, Italian, and Finnish immigrants who had come to America and the Iron Range for the opportunity for a better life. It was a recurring theme throughout Saturday’s funeral, one that his family emphasized by handing out a copy of Rukavina’s last political statement, a letter to the editor of the Timberjay published last month, about the recent immigrants who were providing his care while he battled his leukemia at the University of Minnesota medical center. Mark called it Tom’s final message: “Hate helps no one. Love solves everything.”
Longtime friend Gary Cerkvenik echoed that theme in his own recollections. “We are all immigrants in some shape or form, and Tom welcomed new immigrants with an enthusiasm that is rare in the political class.”
Cerkvenik said he had been Rukavina’s second choice to deliver remarks at his funeral. “He really wanted to do it himself,” he joked. The only instruction he said Rukavina offered him was to keep his remarks under an hour and to wear an American-made suit, shirt, and shoes. “That’s what he was about. Tom took jobs and unions seriously because, as he said, when good people have good jobs, problems go away. And unions brought America the middle class. And he really believed it.”
Cerkvenik noted that during his 26 years in the Legislature, Rukavina never lost his humility. While many at the Capitol would seek out those in power, Cerkvenik recalls how Rukavina would almost daily seek out the average workers, the janitors and cafeteria workers, all of whom he knew by name. He said he was recently reminded that it was Rukavina who carried the bill allowing House and Senate staff members to unionize. “He was their advocate,” he said, a position that came naturally from Rukavina’s working class roots. “His employment set him apart from most politicians at this level; he was a garbage truck driver, steelworker, logger, lawmaker. There is a working class and Tom was in it.”
And despite the fact that his political leanings frequently put him at odds with Republicans, and even more conservative members of his own party, he never lost sight of the fact that when the politic fights were over, it was still possible to be friends. Cerkvenik said Rukavina was touched when he returned to the Capitol after his retirement from the Legislature and was invited to meet with the Republican caucus to say hi and remember past political battles. “He had no enemies, only sparring partners,” Cerkvenik recalled. “We know he was a character, but he had character.”
Cerkvenik recounted just a few of the 529 bills that Rukavina had sponsored during his time in the Legislature, including some significant accomplishments, such as a plant-closing bill that required mining companies to maintain their plants in the wake of closures. The law likely made it possible for two of the current taconite operations on the Iron Range to reopen after previous owners walked away.
He recalled, as well, one of Rukavina’s most unlikely achievements, suggesting that divine intervention may have played a role in his successful passage of a state minimum wage increase, one that Gov. Pawlenty ultimately agreed to sign.
Cerkvenik eventually returned to the less public side of Rukavina’s life, recalling how Rukavina vetted his newfound love interest, Jean, who his longtime friend Scott Asbach had brought to his house one day, about ten years ago, for an introduction. While Rukavina was at the height of his political influence, Cerkvenik said it was the other side of him that attracted Jean. “She fell in love with the guy who knew every tree on his land, who hand -built his own house with the lumber he harvested, who cleared and worked his garden, who had so much love for his friends and his children and their family, and neither of them cared much about money.”
In remembrance, his family is asking that donations be made to the Tom Rukavina Scholarship Fund, c/o Mesabi Range College Foundation, 1001 W Chestnut St., Virginia, MN 55792.