Tom Monaghan's Pizza Pilgrimage

by Jeff Huber and Jerry Soucy
11 March 2006

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
— Mark 10:25 (Bible, KJV)

Civil libertarians are threatening to sue Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan over his plans to build a new city in Florida. Sixty-eight-year-old Monaghan wants to run the town of Ave Maria according to strict Roman Catholic principles. Monaghan and his development partner, Paul Marinelli of the Barron Collier Company, intend to control all of the town’s commercial real estate. If Monaghan gets his way, stores will not be able to sell pornography, pharmacies will be barred from selling condoms and other forms of birth control, and cable television companies will not be allowed to carry X-rated channels.

Some Floridians consider this level of morality policing unconstitutional. One of them is Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “If they attempt to do what he apparently wants to do,” says Simon, “the people of Naples and Collier County, Florida, are in for a whole series of legal and constitutional problems and a lot of litigation indefinitely into the future.”

Monaghan seems unlikely to stand down from his principles without a fight. “I believe all of history is just one big battle between good and evil. I don’t want to be on the sidelines,” he said in a recent Newsweek interview.

What kind of man believes so strongly in his personal moral convictions that he’s willing to build a town in order to enforce those convictions on others? And what drove him to acquire the kind of wealth and political power to make that a realistic goal?

Less Than Great Expectations

Named by the Daily Catholic in 1999 as one of the top 100 Catholics of the 20th century, Tom Monaghan’s rags-to-riches story is well-documented. His autobiography, Pizza Tiger, hit bookstore shelves in 1986, and the Domino’s Pizza web site contains a chronology of Monaghan’s “corporate success story.”

But the story of his early years — and much of his adult life — reads like a Charles Dickens novel.

Born in 1937 in Ann Arbor, Mich., Tom was four when his father died on Christmas Eve of ulcers and peritonitis. His mother was overwhelmed by her circumstances as a single parent earning $27.50 a week. When he was halfway through first grade, Tom and his brother, James, went to live in a Catholic orphanage run by Polish nuns. In Pizza Tiger Monaghan describes his six years in the institution as “stifling.”

I never got over the feeling that my existence was abnormal, that my lot in life was unjust. I didn’t brood about it … I didn’t rebel … I only remember feeling intensely unhappy about my strange new surroundings.

Initially, Tom flourished under the care of a nun who became a “surrogate mother” to him:

Sister Berarda always encouraged me, even when my ideas seemed far-fetched…. I remember telling the class that when I grew up I wanted to be a priest, an architect, and a shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. The other kids laughed and said that was impossible. I couldn’t be all three. Sister Berarda quieted them down and said, “Well, I don’t think it’s ever been done before, Tommy, but if you want to do it, there’s no reason you can’t.” That was inspiring.

Pizza Tiger

In third grade, unfortunately, Tom came under the stern discipline of a new housemother:

She ruled by the strap. We were whipped for the slightest infraction; there was no leniency, never a reprieve. That housemother was as tough as the strictest drill instructor I ever had in the Marine Corps. We would have to pull down our pants and she’d swing her strap with every ounce of strength she had. Under her regime I lost interest in outside activities. My school grades slid and other kids started surpassing me in sports. I went into a gradual slump.

Pizza Tiger

Monaghan never resolved his relationship with the mother who had abandoned him and his brother:

My mother visited Jim and me fairly often. She always said she was trying to bring us to live with her, but she never seemed able to make the right arrangements.

[…]

…The problems between my mother and me worsened. We fought constantly. She said she just couldn’t handle being both mother and father to me anymore….

Pizza Tiger

In 10th grade, pursuing his ambition to become a priest, Tom entered seminary. By his own account, however, he “got kicked out” because he was “more rambunctious than most kids.” At that point:

The situation between my mother and me grew steadily worse. We quarreled often about her car, a 1948 Nash…. One day I borrowed [it] without telling her where I was going, and she got frantic with fear. She called the police and … I let them put me in jail overnight rather than apologize to my mother.

Pizza Tiger

In 1956 Tom enlisted in the U.S. Marines, where he served until 1959. He looks back on this period of his life as a mixed but overall positive experience:

Now I can appreciate the character-building aspects of the Corps’ approach, but it’s hard to see merit in a system when it’s in the process of grinding you down, humiliating, and harassing you.

[…]

Only when we were reduced to raw, quivering awareness of our ignorance could we appreciate in our gut this great truth: Each man is responsible for his own actions. Once we understood that, our tormentors would begin the process of building us up, giving us an individual feeling of self-worth. This is what leadership is built on. The Corps appears to be powering over individuals when, in fact, it is empowering them, teaching them self-motivation. This is the source of the Marines’ famous esprit de corps.

Pizza Tiger

A Billionaire is Born

Tom left the Marines with an honorable discharge, went back to Ann Arbor, and enrolled in the University of Michigan to study architecture, apparently seeking to emulate his boyhood hero Frank Lloyd Wright. But he dropped out of college in 1960 when he and his brother borrowed $900 to buy a small pizza store in Ypsilanti, Mich., called DomiNick’s.

When James traded his share in the shop for a used Volkswagen, Tom renamed the business “Domino’s Pizza, Inc.” and pursued a dream of creating a nationwide chain of pizza-delivery outlets. In 1968 he opened a Domino’s in Burlington, Vt., and was on his way to becoming a very wealthy man.

But the road to riches was often bumpy. Monaghan described a low point in the franchise in a 2003 interview with Fortune Small Business:

In 1969, I went from 12 stores to 44 in ten months. But I had all these employees around, and I didn’t know what they were doing…. I’d financed all these franchisees, but they weren’t doing any business….

I ended up losing 51 percent of the company to the bank, which brought in a so-called expert and made things even worse….

[…]

After 10 months the franchisees hired an attorney and were ready to file suit…. The company was in such bad shape that the bank actually handed it back to me…. But I was thrilled to get Domino’s back, and I thought for sure the franchisees who hadn’t yet filed suit wouldn’t because they had me back.

Well, they sued. […] That killed me. I actually did a fair amount of crying — I couldn’t believe it. But I worked my way out. It started with some franchisees pulling out of the lawsuit and beginning to pay royalties again. One at a time, I won them back….

I still had the debt to pay off, though. It took me about two years of going day to day, thinking each day would be the end. I had well over 1000 creditors, and I got lawsuits from about 150 of them. I was on the phone every day, telling them all the same thing: “All I can do is pay for my food and pay my rent so I can stay open so I can get caught up and pay you.” From 29 employees, we were down to three in the home office, two of whom were me and my wife….

Unable to afford a lawyer, Monaghan defended the lawsuits himself. He cut other corners as well:

I was living in a house with no furniture and driving old delivery cars. I got to know the judge really well, and he saved my shirt, usually working out terms where I paid creditors a few dollars a week over a long, long period. I had some checks printed up with the name Operation Surprise. Most of the creditors had written off the debt. I wrote letters thanking them for being patient and said, “Here is the first check — I hope there will be more.” In about a year I [had] paid everyone off…

Domino’s eventually recovered; by 1983 the franchise encompassed roughly 1100 stores. Monaghan was finally making big money, and as he puts it, he “went a little overboard in buying worldly, material things.” He bought his beloved Detroit Tigers for $53 million, and the team won the World Series a year later. He built the 1700-acre Domino’s Farm complex in Ann Arbor and bought more than 200 collector cars, as well as the world’s largest Frank Lloyd Wright collection, which included a number of houses designed by the architect.

Spiritual Metamorphosis and a “Millionaire’s Vow of Poverty”

Monaghan committed himself to aggressive involvement in religious work. He built a cathedral in Nicaragua and created Legatus (Latin for ambassador), an organization of Catholic business executives. He also began to publicly support the pro-life movement, prompting a nationwide boycott of Domino’s by the National Organization for Women. Monaghan stepped down as president of Domino’s in 1989, knowing he would be jeopardizing the franchise and its employees by acting on his religious beliefs. He then dedicated the rest of his life to Catholicism.

About the same time Monaghan read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The book launched him into a spiritual metamorphosis. According to the Fortune Small Business interview:

There’s a chapter in there on pride, and it hit me right between the eyes. It basically said that sometimes when you work harder than other people and set higher goals than other people, you do it for the wrong reasons — so you have more than other people. And that’s pride. I was taught pride was the greatest sin, and I realized, my gosh, I thought those things were virtues. I’m probably the biggest sinner in the world. So I changed. I took a millionaire’s vow of poverty and sold most of my big possessions. […] I don’t own … any ostentatious things. It was a tremendous sense of freedom. I even sold the Tigers [to fast-food rival Mike Ilitch of Little Caesar’s Pizza Parlors for a price thought to be somewhere between $80 and $85 million].

In 1998, he sold 93 percent of his share in Domino’s to Bain Capital, Inc., the venture company founded in 1984 by current Republican Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The transaction put another estimated $1 billion into Monaghan’s pocket.

A Holy Roman Empire

His fortune assured, Monaghan devoted himself full time to “the Church and pro-life causes.” In a February 2000 interview with the Catholic opinion journal AD2000, he said, “I feel it’s God’s money and I want to use it for the highest-possible purpose — to help as many people as possible get to Heaven.”

He focused on Catholic education, Catholic media, pro-life politics and Catholic business leadership. To that end, he expanded his Ave Maria (Hail Mary) Foundation, which he had first established in 1983 as Mater Christi (Mother of Christ).

The empire of organizations and institutions established under Monaghan’s guidance and the Ave Maria umbrella include:

Pizza Politics: Rendering Unto Caesar

Understanding the importance of electoral politics in social engineering and the importance of money in electoral politics, Monaghan created the Ave Maria List organization, which encompasses a 527 soft-money, political issues-advocacy group and an associated political action committee (PAC) to support specific candidates who advocate the Catholic Church’s positions on such culture-war issues as abortion, gay marriage and school prayer.

And, as have so many religious icons seeking political power, Monaghan has spread his money among the “right” politicians.

According to The Center for Public Integrity, the Ave Maria List 527 reported $175,000 in revenue in 2004, of which Monaghan personally contributed $125,000. Another $15,000 came from the Ave Maria List Membership Organization. Ave Maria List expenditures included more than $173,098 for production and distribution of newspaper ads, mail and e-mail, as well as $25,000 to Monaghan as repayment on a loan.

The Federal Election Commission reports that the Ave Maria PAC’s receipts for the 2003-2004 election cycle totaled $259,263. Monaghan and his wife, Marjorie, together contributed a total of $20,000 to the PAC during that cycle, the maximum allowed to two individuals as contributions to political action committees over two years.

In 2004 the Ave Maria PAC distributed $15,000 to the successful campaign of Republican Mel Martinez, George W. Bush’s former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who became a U.S. Senator from Florida.

The Ave Maria PAC also gave nearly $69,000 to the 2004 campaign of John Thune, the South Dakota Republican challenger who unseated Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. During the campaign Thune criticized Daschle — who is a Roman Catholic — for being ambiguous on the abortion issue. “He wants to be pro-choice for the people who are pro-choice,” Thune said, “then he describes himself to the voters as anti-abortion. That’s the disturbing pattern with Daschle.”

Monaghan’s generous contribution to the Thune campaign appears to have been consistent with the political position of many conservative Catholics who condemned John Kerry for “flip-flopping” on abortion.

Monaghan personally contributed $8000 to Martinez and $2000 to Thune, while Marjorie Monaghan contributed another $2000 to the 2004 Thune campaign.

Other 2004 campaign recipients of contributions from the Monaghans and the Ave Maria List organizations included such religious right-friendly Republican candidates as Peter Coors of Colorado, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Richard Santorum of Pennsylvania.

According only to public documents available on the Internet, in 2004 alone Tom and Marjorie Monaghan personally contributed more than $290,000 to right-wing political causes and candidates. How much more capital Monaghan directly or indirectly funneled into his social/political agenda from individual, corporate and charitable organization sources is impossible to estimate.

In His Image

Which brings us back to the town of Ave Maria. Planned as a base camp for Ave Maria University and Monaghan’s other Catholic enterprises, the campus town will feature a 60,000-square-foot mega-chapel that University officials envision as a “soaring glass, steel, and aluminum structure,” the sort of thing to rival the “big-box” churches erected by television evangelists. Additionally, a private chapel will be located within walking distance of each home. Add to that Monaghan’s proposed control of all commercial enterprises in the town, banning the sale of any product that might contribute to the Roman Catholic idea of sin.

Is such a thing constitutional?

Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a converted Catholic and potential recipient of Monaghan’s political largesse, attended the Ave Maria groundbreaking with enthusiasm, praising the project as a new kind of town where like-minded people could live in a harmony between faith and freedom, but he carefully avoided addressing the Florida ACLU’s objections to Monaghan’s plans to regulate the town’s moral atmosphere and behavior.

Russell Schweiss, a spokesman for Governor Bush, said, “While the governor does not personally believe in abortion or pornography, the town, and any restrictions they may place on businesses choosing to locate there, must comply with the laws and constitution of the state and federal governments.”

Not all American Catholics are in lockstep with Monaghan’s agenda. Interviewed by the Associated Press, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, stated that she thinks Monaghan’s philosophies resemble Islamic fundamentalism. “This is un-American,” she said, referring to Monaghan’s intentions to restrict commercial activity in Ave Maria. “I don’t think in a democratic society you can have a legally organized township that will seek to have any kind of public service whatsoever and try to restrict the constitutional rights of citizens.”

Monaghan may be feeling the pressure to take a more moderate approach. In an AP interview published March 3, 2006, he said his ideas about banning pornography and birth control apply only to Ave Maria University, not to the town.

In the same interview Paul Marinelli, the CEO of the Barron Collier Co., Monaghan’s Ave Maria development partner, said, “The misconception we’re trying to clarify is that this is not going to be a strictly Catholic town. […] I think it would be boring if in fact it was all Catholic.” That’s a magnanimous concession for Marinelli to make, considering that the wife of his partner, Marjorie Monaghan, is supposedly Lutheran.

As the AP article points out, this conciliatory talk from Monaghan and Marinelli is in stark contrast to their earlier rhetoric, so it’s questionable whether their aims have really changed or are only temporary tactical retreats from current political realities.

Final Judgment?

Without question Tom Monaghan is a fascinating case study; one can both admire his accomplishments and shudder at the demons that drove him to achieve them. One can appreciate, as well, his adherence to a strict version of his faith and at the same time fear his desire (and potential ability) to coerce others to adhere to that vision — possibly against their wills, their good sense, and their own perceptions of right and wrong.

How different is Monaghan’s ambition to establish a Roman Catholic refuge in a southern state from the desires of Quakers and Mennonites to practice their beliefs in cloistered communities? At what point does restricting the “constitutional rights of citizens” override the First Amendment right to free expression of religion? These and many other questions will bandied about in the months and years ahead, as the construction of Ave Maria progresses.

But here’s something to consider: Their histories confirm that Quakers and Mennonites have never tried to use whatever political and financial clout they have to force everyone else to live and believe the way they do. They just want to be left alone. Tom Monaghan’s track record suggests that as long as he lives, he’ll employ every one of the considerable resources available to him to strong-arm everyone he possibly can into becoming a carbon copy of Tom Monaghan.

And Monaghan’s political influence extends well beyond the borders of the United States. Father Joseph Fessio, Ave Maria University Provost, recently visited Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. According to Fessio, the pontiff’s first words were, “How’s Ave Maria?

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