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At 80, ironworker who has dangled atop Chicago's tallest skyscrapers is still climbing

Patrick M. O'Connell, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

CHICAGO -- The ironworkers clambered onto the Willis Tower roof, 1,450 feet above the city.

Then they climbed higher. The mission: Complete the installation of one of the skyscraper's massive antennas, another 290 feet skyward.

John Rukavina, hard hat strapped to his head and trusty Red Wing boots protecting his feet, grasped the bars of the ladder attached to the towering antenna, glanced upward and headed for the top.

Dangling more than 110 stories above the Loop is second nature for Rukavina. He has done it for decades. Now 80 years old, Rukavina has toiled at the top -- the real, actual outside-in-the-clouds, highest-point-possible top -- of the tallest skyscrapers in Chicago's famous skyline.

"It's safer to be on that antenna," Rukavina said, "than it is to jaywalk on LaSalle Street at noon."

Rukavina is semiretired now but will climb on high-profile jobs that pique his interest. A recent offer to work on the Willis Tower fit the bill. So on March 18 Rukavina readied his gear and his body for another day high above the city.

The ascension to the pinnacle of the Willis Tower was a long-awaited reunion with an old friend. Rukavina worked on the installation of the skyscraper's original antennas in the 1970s, back when it was known as the Sears Tower, then the world's tallest building. He helped triumphantly unfurl an American flag on top of the new building, clinging to the antenna like a kid on the playground.

"When you're looking down on all of it," he said, "it's just beautiful."

So when the offer to work the Willis Tower antenna installation arrived, he jumped at the chance.

Rukavina, still fit and nimble, hung from the top of the giant metal damper, working with other crew members, including his nephew Bob East, to guide the final piece into place. With a helicopter hovering above them, dangling the final component, Rukavina and the crew aligned, then bolted the damper.

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