Pizza magnate puts riches behind Catholic causes

Posted: Friday, November 10, 2000

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) -- His childhood spent in and out of foster care, Tom Monaghan didn't dream of being a firefighter, doctor or astronaut, as kids often do. Even as a second-grader, he wanted to be a priest.

''I believed it was the highest, most important thing I could do as a human being,'' he says.

Monaghan, now 63, never became a priest but has kept the faith, lavishing on Roman Catholic causes tens of millions from the Domino's Pizza empire he founded and built largely on a 30-minute delivery guarantee.

The married grandfather pledges to die broke, as if recalling the parable that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to reach heaven.

Behind the scenes, the former Marine and one-time owner of big-league baseball's Detroit Tigers has devoted $50 million to Ave Maria School of Law, which he opened here in August.

He owns a Catholic radio station and monthly Catholic newspaper. Raised by nuns he describes as ''holy and close to God,'' he has built a convent. And he has organized model Catholic elementary schools, a fellowship for Catholic business leaders, and a nonprofit legal organization, Thomas More Center for Law and Justice, that defends religious rights.

''I think the most important thing I can do is to help people get to heaven -- and mainly myself,'' Monaghan says, smiling.

''There's no kidding about that -- he wants to take as many people to heaven as he can,'' says Bowie Kuhn, the former baseball commissioner and a close friend. ''There's nothing artificial about him. He's very genuine stuff.''

Monaghan's trucker father died when he was 4. His mother said she was unable to support Tom and his younger brother, James, who spent their childhood in foster homes and orphanages, including a Catholic boys home in Jackson.

Young Tom considered one nun there his surrogate mother -- his ''everything'' amid the daily regimen of rosary, morning prayers and nightly benediction.

''If anybody was ever brought up in a situation where God could be believed, it was us,'' he recalls.

At 12, returned to his mother, he was taken under the wing of a parish priest who gave him jobs around the church and ''was like a father.''

In 10th grade, Monaghan entered a seminary, only to be asked to leave after pillow-fighting, talking in class and, the factor he blames most, his mother's complaints he didn't write home enough.

''I was crushed. I cried,'' he says. ''I felt there wasn't anybody in that seminary who was more serious about being a priest than I was.''

After high school, he attended what now is Ferris State University in Big Rapids, then the University of Michigan. But, penniless, he joined the Marines in 1956.

During this period, for the first time, Monaghan questioned his faith. Were Scriptures exaggerations? Did Christ really rise from the dead?

Then the bookworm picked up a text from a base library: John Stoddard's 1922 book ''Rebuilding a Lost Faith by an American Agnostic.''

''I never had a doubt since then,'' Monaghan says.

Monaghan had always had an entrepreneurial side -- as a boy, he raised and sold vegetables and shoveled snow for cash -- and after three years in the Marines, he bought a corner newsstand. Reading newspapers, he says, made him politically astute, notably about Irish Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, whom Monaghan idolized.

Monaghan later changed his political affiliation to Republican. ''I was a free-enterpriser at heart, and I didn't believe in so much government interference,'' he says.

Then Monaghan enrolled at Michigan. To help pay for school, he and his brother borrowed $900 and bought a pizzeria. James Monaghan later traded his share to his brother for a used Volkswagen.

Tom Monaghan added stores and in 1965 renamed the company Domino's. Eventually, it grew to 6,100 outlets.

As Domino's grew, so did Monaghan's extravagance. He bought the Tigers in 1983. He paid $8 million for a 1931 Bugatti. He shelled out for all things Frank Lloyd Wright, including $1.6 million on a dining room table and chairs.

Yet again, a book changed his course. After reading ''Mere Christianity'' by C.S. Lewis, in the late 1980s Monaghan unloaded many of his pricey ''toys.''

Starting in 1989, he took two years off from Domino's to explore religious goals. He supervised the building of a cathedral in Nicaragua and built a mission in a Honduras mountain town.

He also spoke out against abortion, prompting a nationwide boycott of Domino's by the National Organization for Women.

He returned to Domino's in 1991 after its fortunes worsened. He righted the company, then sold nearly all of it in 1998 for undisclosed millions.

That has allowed him to focus more on Catholic matters.

Critics have questioned Monaghan's motives and means, lately over his fledgling Ave Maria law school, which he envisions as ''a West Point for Catholicism and the law.''

Some detractors believe he seeks to create religiously radical attorneys, perhaps to lobby against abortion. Others suggest his money would have been better spent on any of the nation's more than 20 existing Catholic law schools.

''Much of the media has made him out to be what he is not -- kind of a quirky, eccentric figure. Maybe that sells papers, but that's not the Tom I know,'' says James Ryan, a federal appeals judge who serves on some of Monaghan's charitable boards. ''He's the very embodiment of Christian service.''

Says Kuhn: ''He sometimes handles things in a way people don't understand. He draws criticism, and it breaks my heart because I know his motivation is good, decent and proper.''

Monaghan says he's just following his conscience.

''I hope that some of the things I do carry on, but I don't put my name on anything. I think that's the wrong reason to give,'' he says.

''If I were to get rewards, I want it to be in the next world, not this one.''


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