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Key figure in Reserve Mining lawsuits dies

Matthew R. Banovetz: Photo from 1986 when he retired as president of Reserve Mining Co.1 / 2
Matthew R. Banovetz: Rose from labor roots to lead Reserve Mining Co. in the '80s2 / 2

The man who led Reserve Mining Co.'s handling of a federal environmental lawsuit over the disposal of taconite tailings into Lake Superior has died.

Matthew R. Banovetz, who served as company president from 1981 to 1986, died Tuesday in his suburban St. Paul home from cancer. He was 84.

He formerly lived in Babbitt and Silver Bay.

While executive vice president of Reserve Mining in the 1970s, Banovetz saw the company through 10 years of litigation in which the company was accused of exceeding permit levels of waste rock disposal at its Silver Bay plant.

"He lived in the Twin Cities during the trial, primarily when he was vice president," recalled his son, Peter Banovetz of St. Paul. "When he was president, he mostly focused on 'Mile Post 7' and getting that constructed and operating."

The company spent more than $300 million to build the Mile Post 7 disposal site inland from Silver Bay to resolve the problem of safe disposal of waste material.

Those were difficult years, his family says.

"It certainly took a toll on him," said his daughter-in-law, Susan Banovetz. "It took a toll on him personally. It took a toll on his family. It took a toll on the entire community of Silver Bay. It was an exceedingly traumatic time for the Silver Bay community. Everybody's livelihoods depended on it."

Banovetz grew up in Ely, the son of an ironworker. He worked his way up the ranks at Reserve Mining in Horatio Alger fashion, from shoveling pellets to becoming company president.

After graduating from college, Banovetz began working for Reserve Mining in 1951 as the company was starting up. Its breakthrough process of extracting iron ore from taconite as the region's natural iron ore was being depleted would help revitalize Northeastern Minnesota.

Banovetz was working in the pelletizing plant in Babbitt in 1952 when he lit its first furnace, according to his account in the "Company Town: An Oral History about Life in Silver Bay, Minnesota, 1950s-1980s," a book about Reserve Mining compiled by Kent Kaiser.

By 1955, Banovetz was department superintendent, then promoted to the mine department. He was transferred to the Silver Bay division, where he was an assistant superintendent and rose through the ranks there. In 1973, he became general manager of the Babbitt and Silver Bay divisions. He was named executive vice president in 1975 and became president in early 1981.

With a family tradition of working labor jobs and supporting unions, he was worried how his family would react when he was promoted to management, according to Kaiser's book.

He needn't have worried.

"His parents were proud of him, and he accomplished a lot," Peter Banovetz said. "He was a very well-respected leader and manager, and he dealt with his employees in a very respectful, honorable way. He was well-respected by the people who worked for him."

And those labor roots served him well.

"He was upper management, but he could talk with all the hourly workers," his son said. "He respected them and they treated him with respect and they, in turn, got along with him."

In the Kaiser book, published in 2012, Banovetz reflected on his managerial success:

"It was always my feeling that whatever title I became, I was still the same person, and I certainly didn't think that I was any better ... I liken my position -- my life -- to a Ferris wheel. You get on, you can't stop. It just keeps going, and the next thing you know you got another job and another job and another job. The next thing you know, you look back, and everybody's reporting to you. But my wife and I certainly didn't feel better than anybody, and, consequently, I think people accepted us, as we were and didn't necessarily stand off."

After 35 years with the company, Banovetz opted to retire in April 1986, just months before Reserve Mining declared bankruptcy and closed.

"He was there in the beginning of Reserve in Babbitt and at its close in Silver Bay," his son said. "He learned the business and the industry from the bottom. And with the help of mentors who educated him on mining, he worked his way up."

Banovetz is survived by his wife of 63 years, Ilona, and their three adult children, Peter, Terry Banovetz Gerst and Susan Grozdanich. He was preceded in death by a son, William, in 2001.