From Foster Homes to the Board Room: Tom Monaghan’s Journey in Faith

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Mother Assumpta: 

We’re so privileged to have Tom Monaghan with us today. We’re going straight into some questions. Tell us about your childhood. 

Tom Monaghan: 

My parents were poor. My dad died at the age of 29. I was four years old, and I had a younger brother. My mother went back to nursing school and put us in a foster home where there was no religion in the home, and then she moved us to a Catholic orphanage run by Felician Sisters. I was there from the age of 6 to 12 and then finally got out of the orphanage and moved to Traverse City. It didn’t work out living with my mother. She was probably depressive, very big highs and lows, very intelligent but very emotionally high-strung. I ended up living in the Foster Farms, which I loved farm work, except the 10th grade when I went to the Seminary.

Mother Assumpta: 

It’s a mystery to me. Why did you take ownership of your faith? Did anyone help you to become the Catholic that you are? 

Tom Monaghan: 

It’s still a journey, but I owe my faith to a sister and a hammer. It was Sister Berrata, and I had her in the first, second, and third grade. She was not only my mother and my father, but she was my teacher.  There was about 20 of us in that age group over three grades. That’s where I got my faith. I was in the second grade. I wanted to be a priest. I got older, and we had another sister. She was like a Marine drill instructor. We had the benediction and mass every day. We did the Litany of the Saints every day and long evening prayers. Everywhere in that huge mansion were statues and pictures of Holy Saints, so we were surrounded by it. There’s a big old huge mansion, and everybody had responsibility for one part of it. We had to clean it every Saturday morning. We had the whole school morning scrubbing the floors with wax paper, and I had the honor of doing the chapel. I felt a presence in that Chapel every day of the week and all morning Saturday before the Blessed Sacrament. I thought years later that certainly helped me in my faith. 

Mother Assumpta: 

Look at the Providence of God. It seemed like God allowed you to be in that place to make you the Catholic that you are. Fast forward a little bit. You’re the King of Pizza. How did Domino’s come about?

Tom Monaghan: 

I was 23 years old. I was still a freshman in college. From the day I got out of high school, I was on my own financially. Going to school was going to be tough. I wanted to be an architect. I finally got into a school that took anybody and the tuition wasn’t very high. I got good grades and transferred to Michigan after one quarter, but I didn’t have the money for Michigan. I wound up joining the Marine Corps after I couldn’t find a job. I spent three years in the Marine Corps, and then I got out and went back to Michigan. I had no money because I took three years of savings and gave it to an oilman that was going to make me rich. One day my brother, who was a mailman, found on his route a pizza place called Dominic’s in Ann Arbor, and Dominic’s had a place in Ypsilanti, which is near Ann Arbor, that was closed up. It was a total failure, a hole in the wall. He tried to talk my brother into buying it. My brother didn’t want to do it on his own, so he asked me if I would go in with him. I figured I’d work half the night, and he’d work half the night and then I’d have time to go to school and sell enough pizzas to pay my way through school. That’s how I got the pizza business. It was $500 down, which we borrowed because we didn’t have any money. My brother got cold feet after we signed the papers, and he wanted out. He didn’t want to give up the security of his post office job. I was stuck having to run it myself. I never got back to school. I had no idea what I was doing it, but I got very excited about it. I got into it and knew that’s where I’m going to be. I could see the potential. I was the first one to focus on delivery. There were no pizza places anywhere in the country that delivered except single unit ma and pa’s, and I was the first one to figure it out as a multi-unit basis. 

Mother Assumpta: 

Did you feel like you could run a business with a Catholic or Christian background? Is it possible? If so, how can you be so successful and be a good Catholic?

Tom Monaghan: 

The best way to be successful is to be a good Catholic. You treat people properly, your employees, your customers, your suppliers, and frankly most people don’t do that. I tried to do that. I would hear the big debate with myself before I opened the doors whether I’d be open on Sunday or not. I talked to a lot of priests. That was a tough decision because that was our biggest day because they didn’t serve meals in the dorms on Sunday, so we found a justification for doing that.

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Mother Assumpta: 

Do you remember when we first met? 

Tom Monaghan: 

I first heard about you from George Gillett. I remember he told me what a Dynamo you were. Then I think I got involved with the board of the Institute of Religious Life, and that’s where I heard more about you and seems to me that you won the same award that Mother Teresa won that they gave out, so that was pretty good company. I think we probably invited you to a First Friday dinner. 

Mother Assumpta: 

Also Legatus when you first started it.

Tom Monaghan: 

Probably asked you to be a speaker at some of those. 

Tom Monaghan and Mother Assumpta meet to discuss the great possibilities of a new order of Dominican Sisters.

Mother Assumpta: 

There is absolutely no way we would ever be able to repay you for what you do for us. We would not be where we are without you. You have done so many things for the Church. Tell us about Legatus. 

Tom Monaghan: 

I feel Young Presidents Organization is probably the most effective organization I’ve ever belonged to as far as helping me in the business because you’re dealing with all CEOs, so you can share things and they understand it whereas other employees wouldn’t and that was very helpful. Now, I was speaking at their International Convention in Venice and that was my last year. They kick you out when you’re 50. That was in 1987. Cardinal Szoka knew I was going there, and he asked me if I wanted to attend mass in the Pope’s private chapel. I have my plane over there so it could be relatively easy to go from Venice to Rome, and I said, “Sure. He’s my big hero.” I did and received communion for him, and I’ll never forget him putting the host on my tongue and his eyes met mine, and I’m looking at those blue eyes, and I’ll never forget that. Later on, we go out in the other room and he goes around saying hi to everybody and gives them a Rosary. I’m leaving the Vatican, and it occurred to me there ought to be an organization like YPO for Catholics, but without an age limit on it. As soon as I got that idea, I knew I had to do it. I knew I could do it, and I will do it, and that’s 1987. 

Mother Assumpta: 

It is still growing by leaps and bounds.

Tom Monaghan: 

They say it’s the most effective organization in the Catholic Church. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s what they’ve said for a number of years. 

Mother Assumpta: 

You have it super organized. I’ve been privileged to go around, and it’s always the same. It’s wonderful. Did Cardinal O’Connor have anything to do with it? 

Tom Monaghan and Mother Assumpta getting the plans together to build a new order of Dominican Sisters in Michigan.

Tom Monaghan: 

Yes. I remember we became very good friends. When I was in the New York, I would stay at his residence, have breakfast with him after Mass, and he told people “I’ll do anything for that man,” and I don’t know why I deserved so much of his friendship. It probably started when I hosted a group of CEOs at his residence for me to explain Legatus to them, and he sat through it and afterwards he wanted to talk. He took me to another room, and for about an hour, he went through the history of the Church with various organizations that did well, but every single one of them had problems in the early stages, and he said, “You’re going to have problems.” I said, “Your Eminence, you haven’t read my book. I don’t give up. I will make this work.” I lost a lot more sleep over Legatus than I ever did over Domino’s. I had a lot of problems, so he was right.

Mother Assumpta: 

But you persevered. One of the things that we know is high on your radar was the Ave Maria Law School and Ave Maria University. When you have an inspiration, you go for it. Tell us about that.

Tom Monaghan: 

I was on the board of Franciscan for 12 years, and I was a big fan of Father Mike’s. I was their biggest benefactor, and I wanted to do a lot more, but for some reason they had him step down. I realized as a board member, we don’t make all the important decisions, particularly with who the president is, so somewhere in there I said with all these schools controlled by religious orders, I think we need a school that’s controlled by the Board, and we have to make sure we get strong Catholic board members. That’s how we set up Ave Maria. That’s about time I was selling the company, and that’s what I wanted to do for the bulk of my work life was starting to run them. Then the law school was to be a part of it, in fact the flagship, and that idea started back when I was at Steubenville. Charlie Rice was on the board, and he wanted Franciscan to start a law school. But you have a great law school with Notre Dame. He says all the professors aren’t like me at Notre Dame, so he wanted Steubenville to start one. It was a time that I didn’t have a lot of money, so I couldn’t help a lot, so they ended up not doing it, but I was very disappointed. When we started Ave Maria, that was part of the plan to have a law school. In fact, I tried to hire Charlie to be the first dean, and he says he was too old, so we got Dean Dobranski. That’s why I started the law school because it’s the most influential profession there is next to the priesthood or the religious, and because the lawyers run our country. All our judges are lawyers. Most of our politicians are lawyers. A lot of our corporate leaders are lawyers. There’s a lawyer in every boardroom and every meeting in the country. They are very influential. None of the Catholic law schools have the majority Catholic faculty nor their students, so we needed a good Orthodox Catholic law school, so that’s why I started it.

Mother Assumpta: 

It’s terrific. The university is coming along.

Tom Monaghan: 

We’re about to get a new president, and I’m excited about him. He’s got a Franciscan University background. When he was elected, his first comments to the board were, “I want to fulfill Tom Monaghan’s vision for Ave Maria.” That was music to my ears. 

Mother Assumpta: 

How is the sports program there? 

Tom Monaghan:

We have outstanding football and basketball and then we have 15 Sports. This new president is very big on sports, and I think that’s going to be elevated quite a bit because I believe in sports. I believe that builds character. If you have the right coaches, they can have as big an impact in the spiritual life of the player as the faculty do. 

Mother Assumpta: 

What is the relationship with the military there? 

Tom Monaghan: 

A lot of my background is the Marine Corps. That plus YPO is the best business background I hit. We called the team the Gyrenes, which is a nickname for a marine and people ask me why that name? What does it mean? It’s a nickname for Marines that’s derived from GI and Marine. They said the reason that’s appropriate is because history is one big battle between good and evil, and the Marines are the best fighting force in the world. We want to create warriors for good, so nobody’s arguing with that logic. The kids embrace the name. We’re the only school with that name.

Mother Assumpta: 

That’s great. It keeps going on and on, like your foundation, Ave Maria Foundation. When we first came here, I remember that you had a newspaper and you had spiritual Christmas lights and the petting farm. The greens are still up. 

Tom Monaghan: 

That’s how that started. We were attending the green lights, the regular Christmas lights, all along the eaves of the building, and that got very expensive. I saw a building in Dallas that had these outlining the building. I said I can do that and then leave them up there all the time. That’s how that happened. 

Mother Assumpta: 

They’re very obvious when you’re driving at night. The foundation has also supported so many things including the Thomas More Law Center and Ave Maria radio. When we first came here, you had a good newspaper too. 

Tom Monaghan: 

It went to every Catholic we could identify in the greater Ann Arbor area. I think it was about 30,000 circulation. 

Mother Assumpta:

I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next. 

Tom Monaghan: 

That’s about it, and it’s not me. The Thomas More Law Center, which you mentioned, was Dick Thompson’s idea, and the radio station was Frank Czajka’s idea. We started out by renting a radio station and changed the letters to WDEO for God, and it turned out that was the first Catholic radio station in the whole country. Right place at the right time. As far as the Thomas More Law Center goes, that was all Dick Thompson. He was helping me with some election campaigns I was involved in for pro-life politicians. I don’t know anything about pro bono Public Service law firms. I just liked the way he worked and his dedication. He was a convert. So he’s taken a run with [the Thomas More Law Center].

Mother Assumpta: 

It’s wonderful what’s happened. We’re one of the beneficiaries of the good things you’ve done. God has blessed us through you. 

Tom Monaghan:

You’d have been somewhere else, probably in New York.

Mother Assumpta: 

I don’t know.

Tom Monaghan: 

I started these little grade schools here. I had this idea that probably wasn’t practical but was going back to my early days when we had multi grades of the classroom. We’re going to have two grades of the classrooms and have small schools. I had one or two, and I added a few more. We ended up with four Spiritus Sanctus schools, but I needed somebody to run them. I heard that you were going to start a new religious order, so I immediately got ahold of you and flew out to New York where you were staying, and the rest is history.

Mother Assumpta: 

We have two beautiful schools that are there to your credit because you were gave us a boost at the start, and not only do I thank you for that, but I thank you for all the things you’ve done for the Church. You’re such an example of a Catholic businessman, a Catholic family Man. We’re so grateful. I think in our culture, to see somebody willing to stand up for what’s true, what’s right, what’s beautiful, and you’re an example for that time. Our sisters love you, and we are so grateful and you’re in our prayers. I say that, and there are thousands of other people that feel the same way that are grateful. Only history will prove through these organizations, Legatus, the law school and university. We’re all on a journey to get to Heaven, and you’re an example to us to keep fighting. You’re a man of determination. Your faith is number one, kind of like my Dad. It’s Faith and family in that order.

Tom Monaghan: 

Coming from you, that’s quite a compliment. It puts a lot of pressure on me to live up to it.

Mother Assumpta: 

Tom, you are a beautiful example to us. We appreciate this interview. Lots of people are going to see it and hope people have the courage to stand up in our culture for the truth of our faith. We’re so blessed with the Catholic faith and your beautiful example of what it means to stick to it come Hell or high water. I’m going to be a Catholic in this culture. 

Tom Monaghan: 

It’s never been a sacrifice. It’s always what I wanted to do. I felt that God’s been very good to me, and the best thing I can do for my fellow man is help them get to Heaven, and the best way to do that is help the Catholic Church, and the best way to help the Church was education because it has been so lacking for the last two or three generations, and you’re probably the best tool for change in there than anybody in the country.

Mother Assumpta: 

God bless you, Tom, and thanks a million for being here. 


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