Frank Belatti grew up in what he describes as “a pretty tough neighborhood” in the South Bronx.
He remembers in particular a man named Charlie who ran a corner grocery store. The man was an amputee who, as he got older, “lost the energy to get around the store,” Belatti said. “He would say (to customers), ‘Just get whatever it is you want and leave the money on the counter.’ It was pretty evident that there were a lot of people who would go in and stuff their bags with groceries that they didn’t pay for. It bothered me that they would take advantage of this guy.”
“We are given the challenge to make a difference in every way we can. And we’re given the challenge to provide opportunities for people.”–Frank Belatti
Belatti said he never short-changed Charlie, and that lesson from his youth — acting ethically, helping others in need — has stuck with him throughout his life.
Belatti’s family was hard-pressed to send him to college. “When I came to Notre Dame, my parents both worked, but even with the two of them working, they couldn’t afford to send me here.”
He worked while in school, and with loans and aid he was able to make ends meet and earn his bachelor’s degree in 1969. He later received a Master of Business Administration degree from Fordham University.
“I understood the challenge that it takes to have someone come here,” he said in a 2014 interview for University Relations at Notre Dame. “I also realized the incredible benefit of being here. After I left, I thought, ‘One day, I’m going to try to make it possible for somebody else to come here.’
“We are given the challenge to make a difference in every way we can. And we’re given the challenge to provide opportunities for people.”
Over the past 50 years, Belatti has become a widely admired and successful corporate leader in the food and hospitality industry, directing, among others companies, Arby’s, Church’s Chicken, Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Cinnabon and many more. As president and chief operating officer for Hospitality Franchise Systems (now Cendant Corp.), he led the merger of Howard Johnson and Ramada Franchise Systems with Days Inn of America, making the group one of the largest hotel franchising companies in the world.
One of the guiding lights throughout Belatti’s personal life and professional career has been to engage in social justice and community-building activities. He and his wife, Cathy, have been especially involved with Habitat for Humanity. The 100th Habitat house the Belattis worked on was for Lucy Okonokhua Jackson, a woman who moved from Nigeria to Atlanta in 1993 and is the mother of five children. It was witnessing Lucy’s intense commitment to the education of her children that led Belatti to harken back to his hope to “make it possible” for others to attend Notre Dame.
In 1997, the Belattis established a scholarship fund at his alma mater. Thanks to the returns on their gift through Notre Dame’s endowment, the fund has grown to support 21 students, including Lucy’s five children, all of whom earned an undergraduate degree from the University and are now carving out careers of their own.
Teddy Okonokhua was the first of the siblings to attend Notre Dame, graduating in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering. He went on to earn an MBA from Georgia Tech and is now a business consultant with The Gunter Group in Portland, Oregon.
Laura earned her Notre Dame degree in 2010 in science and business and her medical degree from Indiana University. She graduated from the University of Kentucky’s neurology residency program earlier this year and is now a vascular neurology fellow physician at Rush University with an expected graduation next June.
Magdalene-Lora (Maggie) also graduated in 2010 with degrees in finance and psychology. She earned MBA and law degrees from William and Mary and is a vice president fiduciary adviser for PNC, the bank and financial services company based in Pittsburgh.
“When I’m able to, I will be giving back. I will be how Mr. Belatti was to my family. I will be that.” –Selina Okonokhua
Selina is a 2013 Notre Dame graduate with a pre-professional science degree. She has a master’s degree in medical science from Mississippi College and works in the public health sector for Somatus, a health care company in McLean, Virginia, specializing in kidney care. She is on track to earn a doctoral degree in public health from Walden University.
The youngest of the Okonokhua children is Precious, a 2014 alumna who majored in psychology and sociology. She went on to earn a master’s degree in social science from Mississippi College and MBA and law degrees from Mercer University. She is now an attorney with the Atlanta firm Bovis, Kyle, Burch & Medlin.
Since establishing his first scholarship fund at Notre Dame, Belatti, now the managing partner of the financial services firm Equicorp, has continued to make gifts in support of student aid. In 2020, he created an endowed scholarship fund in his mother’s name, which has supported 23 students to date, and in 2017 he established the the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Scholarship in honor of his late friend, business partner and baseball Hall of Famer, which has provided aid so far to three students. Most recently, in 2019 — the 50th anniversary of his graduation — Bellati made a gift to create five fellowships in the master of global affairs program in Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs.
The commitment to education fostered by their mother and the desire to help others modeled by Belatti has the five Okonokhua siblings dedicated to both values.
As Selina put it: “When I’m able to, I will be giving back. I will be how Mr. Belatti was to my family. I will be that.”