Croatian Diaspora: Tom Rukavina, Happy Warrior From Iron Range of Minnesota

Total Croatia News

Gary Cervenik

Thomas Martin Rukavina, 68, known as Tom or Tommy, of Pike Township, died on Monday, January 7, 2019, at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis after a battle with leukemia.

Just a few inches over five feet, Tom was short in stature but cast a big shadow in the political world in Minnesota (MN) for over 30 years. His good friend, State Senator David Tomassoni stated, “Tom had a passion for the little guy and was a giant in those fights.” There was another journalist who said, “Tom was a common man with uncommon character” that made him so effective and many fellow legislators called him a hero of the working class. US Senator Amy Klobuchar shared that, “Tom understood the dignity of hard work and was a force for Iron Range workers and their families.” Ken Martin the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party chair said that “there will never be another Tom Rukavina. He was smart, irreverent and there was no one more authentic.”

On Friday January 18th over 375 family members, constituents and friends paid their respects to the family of Tom Rukavina at the Range Funeral Home and on Saturday January 19th over 550 attendees came to his funeral at the Holy Spirit Catholic Church, also in Virginia, Minnesota.

Many political figures still came to Virginia, Minnesota even with 40 below wind chill temperatures and almost 200 miles north of the Twin Cities to pay their respects to Tom Rukavina. This included current Governor Tim Walz, Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, US Senator Tina Smith, US Senator Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, former Rep. Rick Nolan and former Governor Tim Pawlenty, too and over a dozen Minnesota state legislators over two days.

At the funeral on Saturday, January 19th, Tom’s son Victor and Tom’s brother Mark shared stories about life with the dynamic Tom Rukavina. Victor, had the crowd laughing about a ten year old trying to become a political operative while still in fourth grade and the family phone ringing all day long. He did admit that all these political responsibilities at an early age gave him and his sister a unique and wonderful life.

Mark Rukavina brought laughter and tears, too as he shared a few humorous stories about the real Tom Rukavina and growing up as his younger brother. However, “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,” said Mark. He finished by saying that he loved his brother very much and “really could not imagine life without Tommy.”

The priest Father Brandon Moravitz eulogized how Tom’s life was “so well lived” and that he was so successful because he had “a wishbone, a backbone and a funnybone ” that he brought to the political world. The Catholic priest went on to explain what made Tom Rukavina who he was and what he stood for in his career.

Gary Cervenik

Gary Cerkvenik eulogizing Tom at the funeral mass with the infamous “refreshingly honest” underwear

Gary Cerkvenik, long time political associate of Tom for over twenty years gave a wonderful salute and eulogy at the funeral to the accomplished legislator. He talked about Tom’s commitment to creating jobs, buy made in America and access to education for all. Mr. Cerkvenik had cited the amazing fact that Tom introduced 594 bills during his 26 years in the Minnesota legislature and served with pride and honor.

He also showed in church, the pair of underwear boxers made in the USA with the words “refreshingly honest” which was the campaign slogan for Tom’s 2010 race for governor. Gary went on to cite ten plus major legislative accomplishments by Tom in the Minnesota House and stated that “We all have a duty to carry on Tom’s work and passion for the common good.”

Our immediate Rukavina immigrant story begins with our grandfather Thomas Rukavina coming to the USA on April 26th in 1900 from the Lika area of Croatia. He landed in Baltimore, Maryland then was off to Chicago on a train. Thomas married Lucy Basic from Perusic in 1913 in Chicago and after his saloon burned down later that year, he moved to Virginia, Minnesota where he became an iron ore miner and had a family of three sons and two daughters.

Tom was born to son Martin “Benny” and Martha Rukavina (Mordini) in Virginia on August 23, 1950. He grew up on the northside of Virginia, Minnesota, in an ethnically diverse neighborhood with a big extended family which positively influenced his life forever. He graduated from Virginia High School in 1968. He attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus where he graduated in 1972, magna cum laude in political science, with a minor in history. He met Lenore Lampi there in college and they married in September 1973. They lived for nearly 30 years north of Virginia where they homesteaded in Pike Township.

Tom and Lenore had two children, Ida and Victor. Tom later married Jean Cole in October 2012, adding three stepdaughters to his extended family.

Tom was proud to have been a steelworker and even a milk truck driver in the Tower and Soudan area, which he credits as one of the reasons a Croatian-Italian American could learn to speak Finnish. He also worked at Ironworld, where he recorded the oral histories of hundreds of early Iron Rangers, establishing a rich resource and legacy for generations to come.

He began his life as a public servant on the Virginia School Board and as a Pike Township supervisor. In 1982, Tom ran for the Minnesota House and lost by 12 votes. However, he did not give up his political dreams. In 1986 Tom ran again and was elected state representative to the Minnesota legislature, representing the 5A district of Virginia and the East Range, a position he held for 26 years.

Tom, like Governor Rudy Perpich, the only Iron Ranger and Croatian American Governor of Minnesota, was also completely committed to creating jobs and making college education available and more affordable for all Minnesotans. Tom’s signature accomplishments included writing the unique Plant Closing prevention bill, led the fight for the MN solar energy incentives, won concessions so iron ore from Minnesota was used in sports stadiums all over the USA or that American flags were made in the USA, too.

Tom fought for union rights and for jobs on the Iron Range and he led the efforts to establish the Iron Range Engineering program at Mesabi Range College and found a way to create tax dollars to fund these type of educational programs to benefits all college students in St. Louis County. However, many say that Tom’s leadership to get the minimum wage raised and passed with a Republican governor and with a Republican controlled-legislature could have been Tom’s biggest accomplishment and he did it with a one vote margin.

Some called him the “Happy Warrior” like others had with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Tom always joked that politically he was the “lovechild of progressive Paul Wellstone and the maverick Jesse Ventura,” since he had his own independent streak. He ran for Governor in 2010 and some say his speech in Duluth at the DFL convention was one of the best ever made by a Minnesota candidate for Governor.

Tom Delia

Tom with his granddaughter Delia

After ‘retiring’ from politics to help with his first grandchild, Delia, he took a job with Congressman Rick Nolan on the Iron Range. Tom missed politics and in 2014, he was back as a candidate and elected as a St. Louis County Commissioner, a job he held until he passed away on his last official day in office and his successor was Croatian American Paul McDonald, son of Bob McDonald (Perkovich) the famous basketball coach from Chisholm MN.

Tom loved the Iron Range of Minnesota and in one interview stated, “I think I even have iron ore in my blood.”

Tom was a devoted public servant, who answered all emails and all phone calls at all hours and doing his best to serve his constituents. He would sometimes joke and say “I work for the little fellers, not the Rockefellers.”

Tom believed that as a politician and legislator it was his duty to improve people’s lives. Throughout his career, he defended workers’ rights and union rights, seniors, education, and youth. As testimony to his dedication and hard work, the building which houses the Iron Range Engineering Program at Mesabi Range College bears his name. Daughter Ida has joined the family business of politics and now works for Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Tom will forever be known for his quick wit, his intelligence, his hard work and effectiveness, his passion, his caring heart, his integrity and honesty, his humor, and his dedication to improving people’s lives. Tom with his warm eyes and disarming smile and as one legislator said, Tom had “it” and he had a gift about how to to connect with people. He was an master storyteller and with his uniquely infectious sense of humor .

Tommy Joey 

Tom with his “Uncle Joey” Rukavina (my father) – two incredible storytellers from the Iron Range!

Tom was a lifelong member of Croatian Fraternal Union Lodge 635 in Virginia, Minnesota like his Uncle “Joey” Rukavina (my father). Tom loved to travel and made special trips to meet his relatives in Italy and Croatia. He treasured the ethnic richness of the Iron Range and impressively Tom would speak Croatian, Italian, Slovenian and even Finnish with his constituents when he would go door-to-door campaigning.

In the fall of 2000, Tom traveled to Croatia with Minnesota Lt. Governor Mae Shunk, also a Croatian American as part of the Minnesota National Guard delegation. The Republic of Croatia and MN National Guard entered into a military partnership in 1996 and this relationship was an important element of the Croatia’s ascension in the Euro-Atlantic community and with NATO membership. Tom was thrilled to return again to the homeland of his grandfather, Thomas Rukavina as part of this historic visit and to experience more Croatian culture firsthand.

Grandkids Ely Parade

Tom with daughter-in law Melissa, with Serafina, Delia standing with baby Lucia and daughter Ida

He loved his family and his greatest wish was to spend more years with his granddaughters and he told me in the summer of 2018, that he hoped he had 30 more years to be a “deda” to his granddaughters.

Tom is survived by his wife, Jean Cole; daughter, Ida Rukavina (Jesse Dahl), of Palo; son, Victor (Michelle) Rukavina, of Minneapolis; granddaughters, Delia, Lucia and Serafina; sister, Chris (Dennis) Rudy, of Washington, D.C; brother, Mark (Barbara McQueen) Rukavina, of Boston, MA, and their children Ben, Nate and Sara.

Tom was preceded in death by his beloved parents, Martin “Benny” and Martha; aunts and uncles: Louis and Helen Mordini, Laura and Bob Carlson, Gloria and John Folman, Michael “Mela” Rukavina, Catherine “Katie” Rukavina, Anne and Roy Thornton, Joseph (Joey) and Arlene Rukavina.

Ida Rick Nolan

Former Congressman Rick Nolan with Ida Rukavina who works for US Senator Amy Klobuchar

In late November, while in the hospital, Tom Rukavina sent a letter to the Editor of the Timberjay newspaper in Ely MN and he wrote that “Hate helps no one and love solves everything.” In this letter, Tom salutes and details what immigrants have done for America and still do for this country. Tom as a proud Croatian and Italian American always believed in the promise and contributions of immigrants and “people are people no matter their color, religion or country of origin and they are good people coming to the land of the free for the same reason as our ancestors did.” For Ida Rukavina, her dad’s letter is all about the themes she’s known all her life as one of two Rukavina children growing up among the Croatians, Italians and Finns on the Iron Range and “it was the story he told us our whole lives,” Ida said. “The letter really is who he raised us to be.”

Tom Paul McDonald

Tom with Croatian American Paul McDonald, his successor on the St. Louis County Council (Photo courtesy of ERIC SHERMAN IMAGES)

On Monday, January 7th, Tom Rukavina passed away and it also was his last day as an elected official. He left behind thousands and thousands of former constituents who adored him. There will never be another Tom Rukavina, and his wit and passion for life and causes will be greatly missed by those on the Iron Range who saw him in action for over thirty years as an elected official.

Tom’s legacy will live on through the scholarship programs he has created and the family urges any remembrances to honor Tom may be made to: Tom Rukavina Scholarship Fund c/o Mesabi Range College Foundation, 101 West Chestnut Street, Virginia Minnesota 55792.


Subscribe to our newsletter

the fields marked with * are required
Email: *
First name:
Last name:
Gender: Male Female
Please don't insert text in the box below!

Leave a Comment