One of the few times that John Rukavina saw his dad, Joe, cry was after watching the movie “Flags of our Fathers” about the men who raised the U.S. flag on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima near the end of World War II.
Joe Rukavina had been at Iwo at the time as a Seabee, a member of the Navy’s elite construction battalion whose job it was to build aircraft landing strips and roads.
“At the end of the movie, a woman got up and said, ‘This is my dad and he was there.’ She put me on the spot so I got up and said, ‘My dad was there too.’ Everyone started clapping and came over and shook the hands of these two,” John Rukavina recalled. “He was an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things with humility.”
Joseph Thomas Rukavina died last month after a brief battle with cardio-renal syndrome and congestive heart failure. He was 91.
He left behind a legacy as a father, a teacher, a coach and a veteran who never forgot his Iron Range or his Croatian roots. He was Mr. Ruk to his students at White Bear Lake High School where he taught for 31 years and coached wrestling for 12 years. He was “Deda” to his 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
“When I was in school people always said ‘You’re Joe’s kid,’” recalled son Steve. “We didn’t appreciate that so much when dad was chaperoning the high school dance. But now we can acknowledge that we were so lucky to be Joe’s kid.”
Rukavina was born in Virginia, Minn., on Feb. 4, 1922, to Croatian immigrant parents, Thomas and Lucy Rukavina. He grew up in a home where only Croatian was spoken.
After two years at Virginia Junior College, Rukavina served three years in the Navy where he received a commendation for heroism for his duty on Iwo Jima. After the war, Rukavina got undergraduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and St. Thomas and eventually earned a master’s degree in education from the U.
He played a little football at the U where his roommate was football legend Leo Nomellini and one of his teammates was future Vikings coach Bud Grant.
Rukavina taught for two years at Swanville, Minn., High School, before joining the faculty at White Bear Lake and taking over the school’s wrestling program. He was also a founding member of St. Pius X Church in White Bear Lake.
“He helped the down and out. He touched a lot of lives,” said John Rukavina.
Rukavina was also active in state DFL circles and counted Hubert Humphrey, Rudy Perpich and a generation of public officeholders as friends. His nephew, former state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said his “Uncle Joey” remained tied to the Iron Range long after he moved south.
“He knew everything about everyone’s family and never forgot,” said the retired 26-year officeholder. “I couldn’t hold a candle to him.”
In the 1990s as the Iron Curtain was falling, Rukavina took special care in providing for his homeland of Croatia. He helped lead fundraising efforts to send humanitarian supplies and food to the war-torn country. His efforts earned him a special invitation to the White House with a group of other Croatian supporters where they were honored at a luncheon hosted by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Along the way, Rukavina also was given the Order of the Croatian Pletera in honor of his efforts for the home of his forefathers.
“He was so proud of that,” Steve said.
Rukavina was preceded in death by his wife of 61 years, Arlene. He is survived by six children, Kay Marie, Joanne, Patty Bergstrom, Steve, John and Teresa as well as 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
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