Jan. 7 was a sad day for blue-collar labor in Northeastern Minnesota. The passing of our one-of-a-kind hero, former state Rep. and St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina, brought tears to many of us who called him our friend, who shared memories with him, and who shared battles with him. We loved this man from the bottom of our souls, even when we disagreed with him, because he was always honest and sincere in his mission to work for our best interests.

I first met Tommy Rukavina at a gathering at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth. I was new to politics; he had a few years on me. As good an articulate speaker as the late Congressman Jim Oberstar was, Tommy spoke to the hearts and needs of the working class from which he came. He knew what we knew and felt what we felt. Back then, Tommy supported me when I spoke of "Range rights" and a "northern Minnesota," while explaining why they were never likely to happen. I stood with him when he called for a "Northern St. Louis County."

I felt his wrath when I stood as an Independent Party candidate against Irv Anderson. I also saw in that same election the depth of his loyalty in the way he supported Irv at a time when Irv was beginning to have serious public-speaking issues. Like most Rangers, I stood with him when he ran for governor. I was proudly inspired by his return to politics at the local level as county commissioner, showing us all that it was about service and not ego.

I find myself hoping he understood how much of an inspiration he was to so many of us rural kids.

Until we meet again, old friend.

Welbec Hamm