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
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.


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.”

He had started the now-defunct Ave Maria College in 1998 in Ypsilanti and, two years later, opened the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor near Domino’s Farms. It was so successful, nearly 93 percent of its first graduating class passed the Michigan bar, topping Michigan’s charts. Nevertheless, Monaghan’s efforts to move both schools to Domino’s Farms were thwarted. The political roadblocks he encountered have not gone entirely unnoticed in Michigan, which could’ve used the millions of dollars he planned to spend on the expanded university, not to mention the resulting economic spinoff.

As he had done for many years, Monaghan — and his wife, Marge — sought refuge in southwest Florida, a winter haven for Midwesterners. Talking with friends there, Monaghan got the idea that he should build his vision in the Sunshine State instead. But it was hard enough to do it in his own back yard, where he already had the school and the land.

“Then the more I thought about it,” he says, “I thought, ‘Is this for my convenience or is it for the good of the church?’ We attract students from all over the world, and we’re in a part of the fastest-growing state here [in Florida],” he says. “It made sense that we should bring it here.”

But back in Michigan, it made no sense to some faculty members and students, who resisted his efforts with both lawsuits and allegations of fraud. The effort certainly slowed Monaghan down, but it didn’t stop him. Florida’s Barron Collier Co. provided several hundred acres of land to Monaghan on which to build Ave Maria University. In turn, the surrounding property is being developed into commercial uses while Bloomfield Hills-based builder Pulte Homes Inc. is building homes.

Monaghan agreed to purchase 50 percent ownership in the surrounding 10,000 acres. “I thought I’d come down here and it would be a lot cheaper, there would be no unions, no seasonal issues to deal with,” he says. “Instead, I picked the worst time in history to build in Florida.”

What Monaghan didn’t count on was Hurricane Katrina and subsequent hurricanes wreaking havoc throughout the Southeast and sucking up labor and materials. There were also the matters of soaring property-insurance premiums in the hurricanes’ wake, high property taxes, escalating construction costs, and an emerging mortgage crisis that put Florida on the map with Michigan as one of the worst states for foreclosures.

“We had to downsize,” Monaghan says. “The oratory’s not finished. [But] we got the main structure done. People are contributing to the organ, statues, and altar.” Another big challenge: coping with the tarnished image of the church in the wake of the pedophile priests scandals of recent years.

“It’s an established fact [that] the No. 1 target of the secular media is the Catholic Church,” Monaghan maintains. “They’ve had a field day with this. But they did the church a big favor; the church needed cleaning up for a long time from homosexuals in the seminary. They’ve forced the church to deal with the issue.”

As a result, Monaghan says, vocations to the priesthood have increased for the first time in years. “The big difference isn’t the numbers; the quality is so much better,” says Monaghan, who at a younger age was expelled from the seminary for disciplinary infractions.

And so the man who was booted out of the seminary, who didn’t finish college, and who finished last in high school, has built a Catholic “field of dreams.” But for now, the field is barren in the midst of prolonged construction efforts.

Ave Maria Development plans a build-out of 11,000 homes in Phase I on 5,000 acres, including the campus. Another 5,800 acres will be developed at the completion of Phase I, depending on the pace of development. For now, only 250 homes with 700 residents have been sold. Most are families with young children, likely drawn to the comprehensive Catholic education provided with a K-12 school constructed near the university.

As a result, Monaghan has modified initial projections of dividends coming into the town in 2010. “We’re not meeting projections,” he concedes. “It’s not a question of if, but when. We’re doing a lot better than anyone else in Florida. People are coming here because of the university, so they’re more than likely to make sacrifices.”

Although there are 224 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, Monaghan believes the 930-acre Ave Maria University will offer what he says others don’t. “There was a need for a Catholic school that’s very strong spiritually and very strong academically,” he says. “There are schools that have one, but not the other.”

Strong spirituality is to be rooted in students’ and faculty’s regular Mass attendance, confession, and fidelity to church teachings. The fledgling university has been cited by the Cardinal Newman Society as one of the country’s top 21 “pro-life” colleges. But secular institutions have not placed Ave Maria University on any top college lists.

“Those are controversial,” Monaghan says. “We look at the scores of the students coming in; we look at the vocations. This year, we have 37 men entering, and 11 of them are going into the major seminary — that’s 30 percent. We [have] a lot of women going into convents; we’re proud of that.”

Monaghan would also like to see AMU on an accreditation list. The average student has an average ACT score of 25, an average SAT score of 1,227 on the old scale (which Monaghan says is the seventh-highest in the country), and 1,850 on the new scale.

AMU admission requirements are a 2.8 high-school GPA, a 22 score on the ACT, and an SAT score of 1,050 on the older form and 1,580, including writing, on the new scale. Tuition, room and board, and fees run $24,500 a year. Monaghan eventually wants to establish an admissions criteria of a 1,400 SAT and a 32 ACT, “which can put us [on par with] the Ivy League.”

AMU currently offers majors in literature, history, economics, politics, sacred music, biology, classics and early Christian literature, philosophy, mathematics, and theology, leading to a bachelor of arts degree, as well as pre-med and pre-law curricula and a certificate in business. It’s also added a graduate program in theology.

Monaghan eventually wants to add a business school and an education program to train Catholic school teachers and administrators. He envisions the present enrollment of 420 students to grow in 20 years to 4,000 undergrads and 1,500 grad students in expanding graduate programs. “We use Princeton as our model,” Monaghan says. “They’ve been at that size for a long time.”

While plans call for the Ave Maria School of Law to move from Michigan to Florida in 2009, Monaghan says that’s ultimately up to the American Bar Association’s accreditation committee. To date, Monaghan has invested $400 million in his combined Catholic higher-education efforts, which also includes the Ave Maria University-Latin American Campus in Nicaragua.

AMU draws its students from 43 states. And students from 16 foreign countries compose 9 percent of the student population, the highest of any U.S. Catholic school, Monaghan says. The student body is 55 percent female, 45 percent male. Monaghan estimates there are about five non-Catholic students at AMU.

The university isn’t controlled by a religious order or diocese — and, contrary to popular belief, it’s not 100-percent Catholic. “You don’t have to be Catholic to go to school here, teach, or work here,” Monaghan says, “but you have to be with a mission. We’d rather have a faculty member who’s a strong Christian in a different faith than a mediocre Catholic. We have one of the best theology faculties in the country. It’s all orthodox — no dissenters.”

Ensuring “purity” has its challenges, though. Monaghan was shocked when, following the recent death of a Notre Dame priest, homosexual literature and paraphernalia were discovered among his personal effects.

AMU does not grant tenure to its professors. Each year, there’s generally one contract not renewed through a weeding-out process. The board of directors’ bylaws state that every member must be a “serious, dedicated Catholic,” Monaghan says. Student discipline is equally firm, Monaghan says. Dissenters either “straighten out or go.”

As for the town of Ave Maria — the 4,068 acres designed to make a traditional Catholic feel like it’s heaven on earth — Monaghan dismisses reports he wanted it to be 90-percent Catholic. “But I’ve estimated it would be that high,” he says. “Right now, it’s probably about 99 percent.”


In the center of Ave Maria stands the 27,000-square-foot Ave Maria Oratory, based on the designs of E. Fay Jones. “He was the most successful student of Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Monaghan, who deeply admires Wright’s work and at one time aspired to be an architect himself.

The oratory resembles a bishop’s ceremonial headdress and has a Midwestern industrial quality to it, with its exterior steel buttresses, metal cladding, limestone, and interior stone, bronze, wood, and glass trimmings.

The oratory is embraced by Annunciation Circle and is lined with 1.2 million square feet of commerce called La Piazza. A storefront window displays a painting of Jesus’ mother, Mary, wrapped in the American flag. No Starbucks here, but rather The Bean of Ave Maria, where patrons sip coffee while watching Catholic programming on a widescreen TV. Its menu features a rendering of Pope Clement VIII and his quote, “Coffee is too good to be just for the infidels. Let us baptize it as a drink good for Christians too.”

Monaghan calls himself a Florida resident, but he still describes Ann Arbor as “home.”

“I spend the vast majority of my time down here,” he says. “I work down here and go home on weekends.” So does Marge, although Monaghan concedes she’d rather be with their grandchildren — even if it means being in Michigan’s colder climate, where their four daughters still reside. Monaghan set them up with what he deems an acceptable inheritance; while family was involved in Domino’s, none are involved in his current efforts.

And although Marge never converted to Catholicism (she’s a lifelong Lutheran), she has attended Mass with her husband every Sunday for nearly 46 years. The Monaghans have a residence in nearby Naples, and Tom also owns a condo in Ave Maria, but it’s used mostly by visiting officials, as he prefers to stay in the campus dormitory.


For the most part, Tom Monaghan does not indulge in sentimentality. He does not miss Michigan, Domino’s Pizza, or the Detroit Tigers, except, perhaps, for hanging out with Sparky Anderson and his stirrup-clad disciples every spring training.

Monaghan bought the team in 1983, and it promptly won the World Series in 1984. He sold it to another pizza baron — Little Caesars’ Mike Ilitch — in 1992.

While today’s Tigers fans expect great things from a team loaded with All-Stars, the club’s former owner is nonchalant. “Probably the biggest mistake I ever made was buying the Tigers,” Monaghan says, adding that he lost focus on Domino’s when he had opportunities to make changes.

Today, Monaghan has no more connection with Domino’s other than as the landlord of Domino’s Farms Office Park. He says he loves the Wright-inspired Domino’s Farms building, but still prefers Florida.

Monaghan started Domino’s in 1960 with $500. Nearly 40 years later, when he sold the company for approximately $1 billion, he sought new investments that didn’t
violate Catholic teachings. He persuaded Schwartz Investment Counsel to start the Ave Maria Catholic Values Fund, and he now sits on its board of directors.

Domino’s current Chairman and CEO David Brandon says he was grateful that Monaghan never looked back. “I made a number of changes after Tom left, including relaxing the dress code in which men wore suits and ladies wore skirts, not slacks,” Brandon says. “He had every opportunity to complain or undercut me, but he never did. When he walked away from the company, he focused on the task ahead. That’s refreshing.”


A child who grows up in circumstances such as those Monaghan did is often labeled “at risk.” His father died while Monaghan was still a boy. His mother, unable to care for him, put him in an orphanage; and afterward, he spent time living in a detention center.

And it wasn’t as if Monaghan could find closure. His mother — whom he describes as “very bright, very emotional, very high-strung” — made several attempts to parent him, only to put him out of her life each time.

Monaghan calls his faith a governor that keeps him from his self-described “natural tendency to go overboard with goals whole-hog.” That faith was channeled through Sister Mary Berarda, whose loving kindness balanced the severity of Monaghan’s orphanage life.

“She was my whole life,” Monaghan recalls. “She was my mother, father, teacher. That relationship was a really good one. She always used to say, ‘Tommy, be a good boy.’”

Monaghan pauses, stricken with emotion.

“So I always tried to be good,” he says, his voice cracking. “I’m sorry, I just keep hearing ‘Tommy, be a good boy.’”

There were other challenges Monaghan would overcome. He inadvertently joined the U.S. Marine Corps, thinking he’d joined the Army, and upon his discharge, he lost all of his savings in an oil-well scheme.

But the orphanage and Marine experiences created a vehicle for his discipline and focus, fueled by his faith. It became increasingly apparent in 1983 that Monaghan was unsatisfied with a legacy of just pizza. And although he bought the Tigers that year, he also started the Ave Maria Foundation, putting his money or name behind endeavors to support the Catholic Church — charity, education, and the media — as well as a Catholic business leaders organization.

His concerns went beyond domestic borders to international efforts, and helping Central American churches with various needs — from acquiring a pickup truck to building a new cathedral.

Throughout his life, Monaghan has embraced five “priorities” — spiritual, social, physical, mental, and financial. Of business, he says, “I believe in visibility, sharing financial information. I believe in a lot of incentives and recognition — sometimes the accountants had a problem with that. I believe in focus, in setting goals and sharing them with people so [they] can get excited about them. I believe in celebrating victories.”

Monaghan envisions his legacy to produce, within 70 years, 3,500 priests, 2,000 nuns, 35,000 “really strong marriages,” and 500,000 grandchildren with the hopes of it all having a “domino” effect.

Monaghan sees himself 10 years from now spending his time raising money for the university and tapping into his unfilled dream of becoming an architect. He adds that his greatest joy is in the present moment. “Everything I’ve done in business — all of the progress and mistakes were a learning experience for what I’m doing right now,” he says. “When you have bumps along the way, it puts things in perspective.

“I realize what I’m doing is setting myself up for criticism,” he says. “The most important thing to me is to get to heaven. I feel the most important thing I can do for my fellow man is [to help] him get there.

“The way I was brought up is you either go to heaven or hell. I don’t want to go to hell,” he says with a laugh. “Life is short, but eternity is forever. You’re either going to be in eternal happiness and bliss, or you’re going to be in eternal misery.”

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