Tommy served us well

The Ely area lost one of its best supporters when the good Lord called Tommy Rukavina home. He battled throughout his life but couldn’t beat leukemia. He was 68.
We grew to admire the short but powerful politician who was bombastic in his approach and not afraid to drop the gloves if need be to fight for his constituency. The Ely area was fortunate and privileged to have Tom Rukavina as one of its advocates and representatives.
When rallies were held to promote copper-nickel mining, the man who spoke last and spoke the best was Tommy Rukavina. He brought history, common sense, logic and humor to his speeches which were warmly received.
There were those who tried to go toe-to-toe with Rukavina, but few could match up to his wit and ability to pull up facts to back up his argument.
After serving in the Legislature for 26 years, Rukavina retired and then ran for the St. Louis County Board. He won and fought for the Fourth District like no other. When a Virginia commissioner would challenge and scheme against him, Tommy never backed down and usually won the argument.
Tommy had two passions he wanted to be remembered for: mining and education. His support for mining focused on the worker and making sure there were jobs up here for decades to come. On education, the state scholarships he created from mining royalties have benefited thousands of students across the state and will for decades to come.
Commissioner Mike Jugovich suggested naming the newly created St. Louis County mining scholarships after Tom Rukavina, who watched where the mining royalty revenues went and tracked down $930,000 in monies received by the county.
Rukavina was able to set aside $150,000 to go to community colleges in Ely, Virginia, Hibbing and Duluth.
“If it’s $1,000 scholarship that’s 150 kids that are going to be our nurses, maybe our welders, maybe our EMTs, cops, firefighters, whatever at our two-year institutions here,” he said last November.
When Rukavina was first elected to the Legislature he followed the money and saw how the whole state had benefited from mining on the Iron Range. He found $30 million going into K-12 education from the $1.2 billion fund from ore royalties and $700 million to universities that used to go to endowed chairs.
In 1993, Tommy was able to divert monies (now over $78 million) into what is now the largest scholarship fund at the University of Minnesota. Plus, $50 million into an endowment at the NRRRI in Duluth to do research on making copper-nickel mining safe.
“My question is since 1993 they’ve been getting the interest off that. What have they done to make copper-nickel mining more safe?” said Rukavina.
He also was able to create a mining engineering program at Mesabi Community College when the U stopped offering one. That endowment is at $11 million.
“We took that money that used to flow into the endowed chairs and the permanent university fund and we diverted it,” said Rukavina.
“We’re always producing and providing for this whole state. The biggest endowments are from mining. This idea was to try to keep a little bit up here for our kids, our communities.”
Tommy found a way to combine his two favorite things: mining and education. He did it to help others. He was passionate. He spoke from the heart. He was like no other politician.
We were blessed to have him represent us.