VIRGINIA- Tommy Rukavina was a little guy from the Northside of Virginia who left his footprints all across the state of Minnesota. In 2017 he did this literally, if not intentionally, on the bridge …
VIRGINIA- Tommy Rukavina was a little guy from the Northside of Virginia who left his footprints all across the state of Minnesota. In 2017 he did this literally, if not intentionally, on the bridge named in his honor this past week.
At the dedication ceremony, held Aug. 19 at the Bridgeview Pocket Park off the Mesabi Trail, a huge photo showed Rukavina, the former legislator and county commissioner, getting an early tour of the newly-completed high bridge over the Rouchleau pit right before it opened. He had inadvertently stepped into wet white paint as he walked the bridge, leaving his footprints on the newly-paved blacktop.
No one missed the symbolism.
“This bridge is a fine representation of Tom’s life,” said Gary Cerkvenik, a longtime Rukavina friend and political lobbyist on the Iron Range, noting how Rukavina was seemingly able to connect all sorts of people, at both ends of the political spectrum.
Rukavina died in January 2019, at age 68, after a brief battle with cancer. He served in the state house from 1987 to 2013. After retiring from the Legislature he served on the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners from 2015-2018. He lived in Pike Township.
Senator Amy Klobuchar said she wouldn’t have missed the bridge dedication to her longtime political friend. She noted that on the day the bridge opened, Rukavina said in a television interview that it was fitting that after producing the steel that built America and all the bridges in the Twin Cities, that the Iron Range should be home to the state’s highest bridge. And now that bridge is named of course, she joked, after one of Minnesota’s shorter politicians.
“This is a tribute to his towering legacy,” she said.
A number of speakers offered remarks, and remembered Rukavina for his lifelong advocacy of union workers, service workers, and for his commitment to public education.
“Tommy fought for many things that we all cherish,” said Pete Makowski, delivering remarks from Sen. Tina Smith, who was unable to attend the event.
Rukavina’s longtime political partner, state Sen. David Tomassoni, who still represents much of the Iron Range, said that Tom was “a giant in his own right.”
“He was passionate about his friends and family,” Tomassoni. “He admired loyalty. He fought for the little guy.”
Tomassoni said that Rukavina fought to make sure the bridge was built with 100-percent American-made steel, and 100-percent union labor. At that point he had retired from the Legislature, but he helped his replacement, David Lislegard, and DFL House Leader Melissa Hortman, to make sure his wishes were followed, and that the bridge was funded.
“Tommy’s legacy is secure,” said Tomassoni.
Rukavina also worked to make sure the Iron Range kept as much influence as possible in St. Paul. He lobbied Hortman to name the newly-elected Lislegard to the House Tax Committee.
“He called Melissa Hortman,” Lislegard said, “and asked if she was willing to grant a dying man one wish.” Hortman agreed before hearing Tom explain that his wish was to have Lislegard, even though he was new to the House, have a seat on the influential committee. She did Tom one better, naming Lislegard as the committee co-chair, a position he still holds.
Several speakers at the program talked about Tommy’s ability to work across the political “aisle” and his ability to maintain strong friendships with those he often disagreed with politically.
“He could get into a heated debate with someone and then go out afterwards for a beer,” said Hortman.
In one of his last public statements, a letter to the editor published in the Timberjay, Rukavina wrote “Hate helps no one. Loves solves everything.”
Minnesota Commissioner of Transportation Margaret Anderson-Kelliher, who served in the House with Tommy, said she was proud, on behalf of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, to name the bridge after Rep. Thomas Rukavina. New signs, bearing the bridge’s name, are now installed at both ends of the bridge.
Tommy’s daughter, Ida Rukavina, was the final speaker at the event. She was introduced as the new generational voice for the Iron Range.
Ida spoke of her father’s love of being out in the woods, chopping trees for his sawmill, growing vegetables in his garden, canning produce with friends and his wife Jean.
“He was so proud he passed on his land to his kids and grandkids someday,” she said.
But besides his love for his family and friends, Ida spoke of his love for his community, education, and his sense of service.
“He fought for what service workers deserved,” she said. “It was the right thing to do.”
“He loved our history. He was so proud of the work he did at Ironworld conducting interviews with immigrants. He believed that politicians should make laws that helped people.”
Ida said her father served for the right reasons. “I am one-hundred-percent certain that he served the people of the Range for love,” she said. “And I know that today he would want all of us to reflect on the way that we can each make a difference… the way we can each improve our communities in our own way.”
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