On US tech tour, Croatia’s prime minister takes a break in Gig Harbor

Before his Sunday morning visit to Gig Harbor, the only thing Zoran Milanović knew about the area came from the video of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. Upon his arrival, he was surprised by what he found on the historic waterfront.

“First, I didn’t know you existed,” he told those assembled. “Second, the only thing I was fully aware of was that sinister bridge around there.”

Milanović, prime minister of the Republic of Croatia, had no idea, until recently, that on one side of the infamous bridge was a small fishing town settled by Croatian emigrants in the late 1800s. He stopped by Gig Harbor while in the area to visit Microsoft in Seattle. He and his delegation, which included members of his cabinet, are visiting the United States to strengthen ties with the U.S. technology industry. His trip will continue to San Francisco and then New York.

He was surprised to see so many people greet him at Skansie Brothers Park. Croatian flags large and small were waving in the misty morning. Milanović said he was touched by the response and repeatedly told the crowd in an “impromptu, by-the-heart” speech how happy he was to see them.

“After being a politician for a long time, you become flat-lined,” he said. “I didn’t expect this.”

Rita Stene was overcome with excitement after meeting Milanović, telling friends and family nearby about her one-on-one conversation. Stene, whose maiden name is Picinich, is of Croatian heritage. She can speak some Croatian, asking Milanović how he was doing in his native language. He stood and talked with her about the island of Susak, where Stene’s mother and father were born.

“He gave me a little history,” she said.

Stene’s story about Milanović is similar to those of many others. The scheduled events of the day — including a trolley trip through Croatian-named streets — ran behind because Milanović stopped to speak to each member of the crowd who approached him. He took pictures, shook hands and knelt to talk to children. The people he met often told tales of ancestors who left home to settle in Gig Harbor and Tacoma.

He shared his admiration for those emigrants who were not content at home and struck out to places like Gig Harbor and settlements in far-off places including New Zealand and South America. He knew exactly why they chose Gig Harbor — the water. Before getting in his caravan to head north, he went to the edge of the dock at the Ross house, on Harborview, and looked down into the water.

“They would never settle for farmland ... they had to see the sea,” he said of the settlers. “I was proud to see here the forebears of the traditions.”

Patty Skansi, whose husband, Nick, is descended from the Gig Harbor boat builders known as the Skansie Brothers, said meeting the prime minister was like nothing she’d experienced. Both she and her husband have ancestors from Sumartin, in Croatia.

“It was like a dream that somebody from the little island where our parents were born would come and see Gig Harbor,” Patty Skansi said.