Earning His Wings

Former Domino’s pizza baron Tom Monaghan still calls Michigan ‘home,’ but his life’s work no longer revolves around cheese and pepperoni. The devout Catholic patriarch of Ave Maria University now spends his days toiling in the Florida sunshine, making sure that he and his disciples are on the right path to heaven


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Institution: Ave Maria University, a pro-life Catholic school. Title: Chancellor (former chairman, Domino’s Pizza; former owner, Detroit Tigers). Headquarters: Ave Maria, Fla. Net Worth: $1 billion (est.)
Photo by Susan Egan

The founder of Domino’s Pizza and former owner of the Detroit Tigers sets aside the fudge offered to him by a visitor on his 71st birthday. “I don’t want the temptation,” he says. Tom Monaghan flashes his trademark smile on what is now a gently lined, but still youthful countenance. His rejection of sweets jibes with his longstanding health-conscious approach, which now includes 10,000 steps a day monitored by a pedometer, along with steady aerobic activity, vigorous weightlifting, and a daily intake of fewer than 2,000 calories. His fitness regimen augments his spiritual discipline of daily Mass, regular confession, saying the rosary, and prayer.

Indeed, Tom Monaghan cannot be swayed, either in his health objectives or his spiritual goals. The man who created a business empire through a life of hard work is now working in his golden years to divest himself of his possessions. Long gone is his ownership of the Detroit Tigers. Gone, too, is any affiliation with Domino’s Pizza. Monaghan has also bid farewell to most of his collection of Frank Lloyd Wright decorative works, fine wines, classic cars (including a handmade Bugatti Royale), Gulfstream jet, and Sikorsky S-76 helicopter — the one in which he delivered Domino’s pizzas to sportswriters and others trapped inside Tiger Stadium, as cars burned in the streets outside following the Tigers’ 1984 World Series victory.

To Monaghan, it all seemed so superfluous after he read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and received Holy Communion from Pope John Paul II. A period of self-examination and introspection led him to a new awakening: Monaghan would sell his possessions to further the cause of the Roman Catholic Church. Some might call him a “conservative.” But that’s not how Monaghan sees himself.

“A conservative is a reactionary,” he says. “They don’t want anything to change. They want the Mass to always be in Latin and [no] meat on Friday. The church changes, and we’re with the church wherever it’s going.”

In contrast to the vast Domino’s Farms Office Park in Ann Arbor Township, Monaghan now occupies an austere office in southwestern Florida overlooking an expanse of tropical terrain, punctuated at day’s end by a glorious sunset. It is upon this landscape that Monaghan has built Ave Maria University — the nation’s newest Catholic higher-education institution, of which he is chancellor, and Ave Maria, the town in which it’s based.

While Monaghan sought to make sacred this Florida acreage with the university and development, others — like the environmentalists concerned about its impact on the endangered Florida panther’s habitat and on the fragile Florida Everglades — see the construction as sacrilege. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns recently when Monaghan indicated that Ave Maria would be no place for contraceptives or pornography. But like the palm trees that dot Ave Maria’s landscape, Monaghan bends with the storms and remains rooted.

CHAPTER 2.

Monaghan’s journey — from growing up in an orphanage to creating a Catholic community that some revere and others revile — could be characterized as the path of “most resistance.”
   
Michigan could’ve been the beneficiary of Monaghan’s spiritual vision, but Ann Arbor Township officials didn’t see it his way — and never have, he says, ever since he constructed Domino’s Farms there in 1984. Lamenting that many of his plans were constantly vetoed, he characterized the township as dominated by Democrats and unreceptive to growth. By the time Monaghan’s planned subdivision and golf course finally got approval, he’d lost focus and was unable to complete the project, he says. What did not get approval was his much-desired Catholic university on the Domino’s Farms property.

Exhausted after five years of making it his top priority, to say nothing of the existing Ave Maria School of Law bursting at the seams in Ann Arbor, Monaghan says he was getting “pretty desperate.”
 

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