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Businessman John Rakolta Jr. is passionately committed to ensuring that every child has the opportunity to get a solid education. By Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

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Champion of courageous conversations. 

John Rakolta Jr., chairman and CEO of Walbridge, an international construction and engineering company headquartered in Detroit for 102 years, does not shy away from talking about tough topics. In fact, he seeks out those conversations.

The 71-year-old's ability to bring people together from opposite sides of contentious policy issues and make progress — and sometimes even solving those issues — has earned him praise from across the city.

“One of the things I have loved about John is his ability to connect people around serious and controversial issues, where folks won’t come together and talk,” said Alice G. Thompson, CEO of Black Family Development Inc., a human services agency in Detroit.

Thompson asked Rakolta, a Bloomfield Hills businessman and Republican fundraiser, in 2016 to join her on the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children, a group of business, civic, education and faith leaders that led efforts to rescue Detroit Public Schools from financial collapse.

As a co-chair, Rakolta played a central role in lobbying the Republican-controlled Legislature to relieve the school district of $617 million in debt piled up by a seven-year succession of state-appointed emergency managers.

“His greatest gift is being able to connect people of different opinions and views, and he can get us to come together to the table and listen to teach other for the first time in history,” Thompson said.

“In Lansing, he had the gift of getting others to do self-examination and create a change in our hearts and in our thinking. If you can get one to change their heart, isn’t that a gift?” Thompson said.

Rakolta, a third-generation Romanian American, began his advocacy work in Detroit in the 1970s with New Detroit Inc., a racial justice organization formed in the wake of the 1967 riots. There he met Shirley Stancato, the organization’s president and CEO.

Rakolta began holding dinners at his Oakland County home with a cross-section of New Detroit trustees where he held conversations about race relations and closing the educational gap.

“He loves intellectual tension," Stancato said. "It is through that that you come to an understanding. You can talk to John about anything. You can’t say that about everybody."

Rakolta doesn’t care if you are a Democrat or a Republican, Stancato said.

"When he stands up for something he stands up for something. Like the kids in Detroit. He is a champion for children, education and racial equity,” Stancato said.

Rakolta, who has a civil engineering degree from Marquette University and completed the Smaller Company Management Program at Harvard Business School, said knowledge is such an important element of life today and that a solid basic education is essential for every person.

His experience on the coalition showed him intimately how the children of Detroit were being short-changed in their educational experience by having money meant for the classroom going to pay off debt instead.

"The objective was to get that debt off the books. The debt was being paid off by children. This is so unjust. The kids who are at most risk, the children who need this more than anything, are paying for the mistakes of the past," Rakolta said.

Rakolta, who attended Detroit Public Schools from kindergarten through eighth grade, said his love for Detroit dates back to when he was a young man helping his father, John Rakolta Sr., at construction sites in the city.

"My interest in Detroit has been a lifelong love and avocation. ... It's just infused in me," Rakolta said.

In March, Rakolta was appointed to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. He is awaiting Senate confirmation.

John Rakolta Jr.

Occupation: Chairman and CEO of Walbridge 

Education: Bachelor's degree, Marquette University; Smaller Company Management Program, Harvard Business School

Family: Wife, Terry; four children

Why honored: Advocacy for Detroit schoolchildren as co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children. Played a central role in lobbying the Republican-controlled Legislature to relieve the school district of $617 million in debt.

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