“There’s a tremendous hole in the Range that’s not going to be filled.”
Those words, from Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls), captured a repeated theme as House members remembered the life of former Rep. Tom Rukavina who, from 1987 to 2012, represented District 5A in the heart of Minnesota’s Iron Range.
Rukavina — many members called him “Tommy” during the remembrances — passed away from leukemia Jan. 7 at the age of 68.
Several members recounted how Rukavina could engage in a fierce debate with a political opponent, sometimes using colorful Iron Range language, and then immediately do something to show that a bond of friendship remained intact.
Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) recalled when Rukavina didn’t get what he wanted in a tax-related bill due to Republican opposition. Davids recounted the conversation he had with Rukavina, who said that if he ever needed a heart transplant, he’d want Davids’ heart, “because it’s never been used.”
Davids replied that if he ever needed a brain transplant, he’d want Rukavina’s brain because he knew for sure it had never been used.
“Then we went out to Mancini’s and had a good meal together,” Davids said.
Rukavina’s House colleagues would probably agree with the self-assessment he gave to Minnesota Public Radio News in 2012: "Sometimes, I wasn't politically correct. But I always tried to be politically honest."
Many members spoke of Rukavina’s ability to work with both parties – evidenced by the fact that 11 of the 20 members who shared their memories were Republicans. The remembrance lasted for more than an hour, and many members wore buttons featuring a photo of Rukavina.
Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing) called Rukavina “a tremendous role model for us all” and recounted how he continued to serve others when he returned to his beloved Virginia, Minn. home in 2012 after serving in the House.
Sandstede referenced from a letter to the editor that Rukavina sent from his University of Minnesota hospital bed shortly before he died. Rukavina wrote that he was saddened by the hate toward immigrants that have infected parts of our society. He spoke of the care he’d received at the hospital from doctors and others who have emigrated from countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Brazil, and others.
Rukavina, who was always proud of his Croatian heritage, wanted to remind people that America is a nation of immigrants, and that all should be welcomed.
Sandstede quoted Rukavina’s conclusion from the letter -- “Hate helps no one, love solves everything” -- and challenged her colleagues to keep those words in mind as the current session moves forward. “They would serve us all very well,” she said.
The final person rising to speak was Rep. Dave Lislegard (DFL-Aurora), who represents the same region as Rukavina did, and who said that he would not be in the House were it not for Rukavina being his mentor and for helping his family in a time of great need.
“Tommy was there for me,” Lislegard said, when he had a young family and was one of more than 1,000 people laid off in 2002 when the LTV Steel Mining Company closed its mine in Hoyt Lakes, Minn.
“You can never replace a Tommy Rukavina. We can only honor him,” he said.
The informal session ended with a moment of silence.
A life serving the Iron Range
Rukavina was born in Virginia, Minn., in 1950, and graduated from the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1972, majoring in political science. Prior to serving in the House, Rukavina was a milk truck and garbage truck driver and a miner at Minntac for three years.
Rukavina served as assistant majority leader during the 1993-94 biennium. He ran unsuccessfully to become the DFL candidate for governor in 2010.
After leaving the House, Rukavina was elected to the St. Louis County Board and served there until retiring last year because of health reasons.
Rukavina is survived by wife Jean, son Victor, and daughter, Ida.
A funeral service for Thomas Rukavina is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Jan. 19 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Virginia, Minn. Visitation is scheduled from 5-7 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Range Funeral Home, and then also beginning at 9:30 a.m. at the church on Saturday.