History will remember Tom Rukavina in many ways: The relentless working class champion, a staunch supporter of Iron Range mining, a lawmaker who helped raise minimum wage and create scholarships, while also cursing up a storm and trying to split St. Louis County in half.
But in reflection of his death on Monday, considering the era our lives and politics are mired in today, his humanity toward public service stands out more than ever.
The story told on the House floor by Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, of trading insults with Rukavina in a spirited debate, only to dine out the same night, was not uncommon among those remembering the late public servant.
His letter from a University of Minnesota hospital bed to The Timberjay on how immigrants have made the country better, ending with the line: “Hate helps no one, loves solves everything.”
Rukavina was always cut from a different cloth in that way. He came from a more argumentative nature but in a time of less quarrelsome political order, when allies and friends were made across aisles and government office was held to enrich the lives of the people they served, not self-serve the party to move up the rungs.
Even in today’s more divisive brand of politics, Rukavina remained an institution working for the people of the Iron Range. His voice never wavered from the big fight, whether it be copper-nickel mining, pensions or other issues impacting the working class. When his voice wasn’t heard, he was behind the scenes advising and preparing the current and next generation of Range politicians to continue the fight.
At times, his good nature gave way to bombast. He’d pick a fight just to jab at a political opponent. And sometimes, the swearing wasn’t because he liked someone. Those sides lost him battles the same way they won him some. It was all part of the package Rukavina brought to the table.
But today there is a big hole on the Iron Range where Rukavina once stood. This region will never have a champion with the same tenacity. As Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora said Thursday, “You can never replace a Tommy Rukavina. We can only honor him.”
In his final days, it was the Iron Range and the people helping him — his family, nurses, janitors — that were on Rukavina’s mind. We saw the same empathy and compassion in a farewell letter written to House colleagues in 2012 when he thanked: “the working people at the Capitol who clean our bathrooms, empty our trash cans, and cook our meals. Many of you have become my friends and I'll always cherish that.”
Remembering Tom Rukavina’s will be easy for those who knew him. Remembering the heart that made him who he was as a person and legislator can help us turn a new corner in life and politics — and become better public servants ourselves.