Head of Kresge Detroit Program to retire

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

The word that comes up time and again is “tenacious.”

Laura Trudeau, who heads the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program, announced two weeks ago that she’ll retire at year’s end after 15 years in the trenches fighting for the city’s future.

The soft-spoken 62-year-old may be unknown to the public at large, but there’s scarcely a hard-fought Detroit urban victory — whether the renovation of Eastern Market, creation of the Riverfront Conservancy, launching the M-1 Rail project or the “grand bargain” that resolved the city’s bankruptcy — that doesn’t bear the stamp of her influence and intellect.

Rip Rapson, Kresge president and CEO, says he’d heard all about the woman in charge of Detroit programming when he arrived in 2006, and — given the seemingly intractable nature of the city’s problems — he had a very specific image in mind.

“I thought Laura was going to be this gritty, tough, spike-haired, eat-nails person,” he says.

“Instead,” Rapson adds, “I walk in and there’s the Ingrid Bergman of philanthropy standing there, this gentle blonde with flip curls who’s as ardent an advocate for the city of Detroit as I know.”

At Midtown Detroit Inc., Executive Director Susan Mosey calls Trudeau “tough, persistent and open to new ideas. She’s also incredibly hard-working. That’s just part of her DNA.”

The words the Knight Foundation’s Katy Locker picks are “Intense. Committed. And a Detroiter.”

All the projects Trudeau’s worked with are funded by Kresge. But, in a break with old-fashioned foundation tradition, her role goes way beyond just supervising grants. Trudeau — and Kresge — are now full-fledged partners in trying to make each Detroit project they fund a success.

Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Rock Ventures, worked with Trudeau on the riverfront, the QLine, and the blight removal task force, and agrees the rigor hidden beneath her impeccably tailored suits may come as a surprise to those who don’t know her.

“Ninety percent of the time Laura just adds thoughtfully to the group discussion,” Cullen says. “But the other 10 percent? If she’s got a point she thinks is important, whether about M-1 station design or community involvement, she’ll assert it politely and continue to assert it in a way that makes it difficult for people to disagree with her over time.”

At the end of the day, Cullen adds, you may not remember Trudeau steering the conversation, “but when you see the outcome, her fingerprints are all over it.”

Trudeau, who’s overseen $425 million in Kresge grants and loans, grew up in Roseville. Her father was an engineer in the auto industry, and her mother a school secretary.

While she grew up in the suburbs, Trudeau spent a huge amount of time with her grandmother on Detroit’s east side, and suggests that’s where her passion for big cities came from.

“Honestly,” she says, “I think it’s because my mother loved Detroit so much.”

At 14, Trudeau volunteered on Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. A few years later, the National Merit Scholar and class salutatorian got into both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, but chose the latter because she fell in love with the campus.

But within a month, she knew she’d made a mistake. “I never really wanted to go right from high school to college,” Trudeau says. “I wanted more of a grown-up life.”

So she got a temporary gig at the National Bank of Detroit’s downtown headquarters, which in short order turned into a full-time job.

While working, Trudeau got her bachelor’s degree in community development from Central Michigan University. During her 28 years at NBD, she rose to vice-president of philanthropy and community relations for Michigan and three other states.

She moved to Kresge in 2001, the same year her husband Tom jumped from landscape contracting to teaching fourth grade. (“He loves it,” she says.)

After Rapson’s arrival at Kresge in 2006, the foundation got more and more involved in the nitty-gritty of rebuilding Detroit, a seismic shift in how philanthropies traditionally do business. Cullen credits Trudeau with spearheading much of that redirection.

In the past, Cullen says, foundations were typically reactive.

“They sat in their offices, above the fray,” he says. “Laura was one of the people who really started changing how philanthropy operated. Suddenly you had a partner, not just a grantor, who supplied intellectual support and encouragement to help you achieve your outcomes.”

But this hands-on approach brought new headaches. With the Detroit Future City project, an effort to step back from the city’s day-to-day crises to reimagine its future, Trudeau had to juggle a bumpy relationship between Mayor Dave Bing’s administration and national experts Kresge brought in to facilitate the process.

“Laura was deeply skillful,” Rapson says, “in managing the politics of not disrespecting the mayor’s office, while not slighting professionals who’d already given a couple years to the project. It was a difficult dance.”

One of those professionals, Harvard University urban planner Toni Griffin, was impressed.

“Laura is masterful at working through problems in complex urban development projects that require multiple partners,” Griffin says. “She is patient, but persistent and tenacious in seeking common ground.”

For her part, Trudeau says she’s proudest of Kresge’s focus on building confidence in the Detroit’s future.

“That’s really been our goal for the past 10 years,” she says, “identifying assets where investment will make a difference and generate momentum — staking our claim that Detroit has a really great future.”

Her voice falters momentarily, and Trudeau catches herself.

“Oh gosh, I’m tearing up,” she says, surprised. “But it does have a really great future.”

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-6021

Laura Trudeau

Job: Managing Director of the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program

Education: B.S. Central Michigan University

Family: Husband, Tom; three grown children and two grandchildren

Home: Fraser

Some Trudeau projects

■Eastern Market renovation

■Detroit Riverfront Conservancy

■M-1 Rail

■Detroit Future City Strategic Framework

■Woodward Corridor Investment Fund

■Detroit Home Mortgage program