John Rakolta ’53: Legacy of Achievement and Compassion

The Current, Fall 2003



By any measure, John S. Rakolta was successful both materially and spiritually. As chairman emeritus at Walbridge Aldinger Company, a worldwide construction management firm, he had worked his way up from timekeeper to chairman and chief executive, guiding the company to become one of the largest of its kind in the nation. Yet he never forgot the lean years preceding his success or his Romanian roots. Rakolta passed away in September 2003, but his son, John Rakolta, Jr., recalls his father’s legacy of achievement and compassion.

The eldest son of Romanian immigrants who never finished high school, John Rakolta was encouraged by his father to obtain the highest education he could. World War II intervened after he graduated from Pershing High School, and Rakolta enlisted, becoming a bombadier-navigator in the Army Air Corps. Injured when his plane was shot down over Germany, he was a prisoner of war until 1945. He was awarded an Air Medal with two Oak Leaf clusters for his actions. When he returned to Detroit, he married and attended the University of Detroit Commerce and Finance Evening College, graduating in 1953.

Says son John, “I know my father felt that without his degree he would not have had the same opportunities in life. Getting the degree was very difficult for him. At the time, he was working a full-time job, raising three children and taking nearly a full courseload. He would leave work to attend classes during the day.” He adds, “John Sagan was his favorite professor. My father respected and thought very highly of him.”

Rakolta became partial owner of Walbridge in the early 1950s and accumulated holdings until he became sole owner (and chairman and chief executive) in 1970. Under his guidance, the company became one of the largest construction management firms in the country, handling jobs worldwide. Among Walbridge’s notable projects are the DaimlerChrysler Technology Center, the Nissan Research and Development Center, the One Detroit Center Tower, the Rouge Steel Hot Strip Mill, and the recently completed Compuware headquarters in downtown Detroit. Described by his son as “a tireless worker,” Rakolta retired in 1993, but remained involved with company operations until his death.

Rakolta felt a strong tie to Romania and much of his charitable efforts were directed toward supporting Romanian-American churches and organizations. He also supported Focus Hope, New Detroit, the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, the Northwest Detroit Activities Center, Boy Scouts of America and Junior Achievement. On a personal level, Rakolta remembered the help he had received during college and routinely supported many individuals both in the U.S. and Romania. Rakolta Jr. recalls a recent example: An elderly relative in Romania was about to lose her apartment. Says the younger Rakolta, “He didn’t think twice, he just wrote her a check. He believed in sharing his good fortune with others…. He believed in possibilities, and worked hard to make them become realities for himself and for many others.“ He passed this love for Romania to his son, who has been the honorary consul general of Romania in Detroit since 1999.

In addition to his commercial and charitable work, Rakolta was an antique car collector, and an avid golfer—once winning the Amateur Team Championship at the Bob Hope Chrysler Gold Classic. His interest also included horse racing. He was part owner of two Kentucky Derby contenders, most recently Ten Most Wanted, who finished a close second in the 2003 Belmont Stakes and won the 2003 Traverse Stakes at Saratoga.

Most of all, says his son, Rakolta was known for “giving 100 percent to everything and anything he did…he did the little things with the same gusto as the big things” and also for always looking ahead, says his son. “He would often say, ‘I can’t do anything to change the past, however I can have great influence on the future.’”