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NRRI Pays Tribute to Tom Rukavina

Hands holding a shovel of taconite
January 8, 2019

NRRI celebrates the legislative legacy of Tom Rukavina.

Reflecting on the legacy of Tom Rukavina, especially his pride in the Natural Resources Research Institute, Rolf Weberg, NRRI executive director, has nothing but respect.

“I always looked forward to talking with Tom because I always learned something,” said Weberg. “But I had to be prepared before any conversation. Because he’d be more prepared. Tom was quick and he always had a constructive intent.”

Four men in white hard hats stand in discussion in an industrial setting.

His last visit to NRRI was in late February 2017 to witness the start-up of the Biomass Conversion Lab. Rukavina knew well the history of how University of Minnesota applied research revitalized the Iron Range by turning low value taconite into high value pellets. As St. Louis County Commissioner, he wanted to see NRRI do the same for the wood industry. He saw potential in the torrefaction process to convert local wood supplies into a product to power county buildings.

As state representative for District 5A, Rukavina had an often singular focus on making life better for the working people of the Iron Range. He fought to establish a $50 million endowment for NRRI’s Coleraine Minerals Lab so that applied research could keep the mining industry moving forward. Royalties from taconite mining on University-owned lands were dedicated to research for Iron Range industries, an Endowed Taconite Chair position and mining education scholarships.

In a 2006 interview, Rukavina talked about NRRI research to find valuable uses for taconite waste rock, mercury reduction in water systems, biomass and hybrid poplar research.

“This is exactly the type of research I envisioned being done when we established the endowment with the Coleraine Lab in the first place,” he said then. “The resources on the Iron Range are valuable to all of us and we should all work together.”

Two men pose for camera. Man on right holds a plaque.

Tom Rukavina received a UMD Distinguished Alumni Award in 2008.

Weberg recalled conversations with Rukavina about how NRRI’s comprehensive approach to research – water, energy, minerals, forests, wildlife – was necessary for the future of northeastern Minnesota. While he often focused on the mining industry, Rukavina appreciated the connection between all the resources.

“And when we discussed getting things done, moving projects out of the lab, that’s where he lived. When I talked about impact and results, he was on board,” said Weberg.

UMD Chancellor Lynn Black added that Rukavina’s legacy in securing funding to support student scholarships at the Duluth campus will live on forever.

“He was a passionate man who made a lasting impact on so many, but especially here at UMD,” said Black. “We are saddened by the passing of Tom Rukavina.”

NRRI researchers continue to honor his legacy every day by meeting the mission Rukavina helped to hone, deriving the highest value from Minnesota’s resources.

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