An American inspiration
An exclusive with Legatus founder Thomas S. Monaghan who turns 75 on March 25 . . .
Tom Monaghan has gained worldwide fame for his notable accomplishments.
He built Domino’s Pizza into a global fast food franchise. He owned the Detroit Tigers and won the World Series. He created Legatus and founded Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law. For decades, he was known for his extravagant lifestyle: a collection of cars, planes, houses, boats and Frank Lloyd Wright furniture and artifacts. When Monaghan sold Domino’s to Bain Capital in 1998, he was worth over a billion dollars.
What few people realize is that Monaghan wasn’t always a high roller. Prior to the success of Domino’s, his life was anything but lavish. And these days, due to a spiritual epiphany in 1989, he chooses to live a simple, highly disciplined lifestyle.
Thomas Stephen Monaghan was born in 1937 in Ann Arbor, Mich. His father died when he was four. Two years later, his mother placed Tom and his brother Jim in an orphanage because of financial difficulties. The orphanage was run by an order of Polish nuns, the Felician Franciscan Sisters. Monaghan chooses to look at the bright moments of those years rather than dwell on the hardships. One of those bright lights was Sister Berarda, his first and second grade teacher.
“She was a young sister, always very encouraging, and I tried hard under her,” he recalls with a smile. “She was a very holy woman.”
He talks about his life at the orphanage with characteristic charity.
“It was a combination of very strict and spiritual,” Monaghan says. “We had lots of prayers, morning and evening. It was like living in a convent. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me my faith.”
In high school, Monaghan went on to live with a succession of foster families.
“The families were good to me,” he remembers. “I was a hard worker, and they treated me like I was one of the family. I couldn’t do any sports at school though, because I had to do chores.”
Monaghan lived with an aunt during his senior year in high school, with the understanding that he would move out upon graduation. After high school, he rented himself a room and drove a truck for a living. His idea was to save money for college and study architecture.
“Then one day I decided to join the Army because I had heard that if you joined the Army for three years, they would pay for two years of college,” he explains.
While speaking with a recruiter, who confirmed this information, Monaghan decided to sign up. What the recruiter failed to mention was that he was recruiting for the Marines. Monaghan found himself enrolled in the Corps with no way out. And the Marines did not pay for college.
Yet Monaghan discovered that the Marines would give him exactly the experience he needed.
“It was the best education that I ever got. It stripped me down and built me back up again. I got more abuse and harassment than I could ever have imagined. But it gave me lots of self-confidence,” he says.
After Monaghan finished his service in the Corps, he lost all his savings to a con man. In the midst of this tough moment, Monaghan’s brother Jim, a mailman, suggested one day they buy a bankrupt pizzeria called DomiNick’s.
“My brother didn’t want to do it alone, so I agreed to go in for half,” he says. “The idea was that I’d work and go to college the other half of the time.”
But Monaghan’s brother never did quit his job as a mailman, and Monaghan soon realized that he was stuck with the pizzeria. He bought his brother’s share and threw himself into the business.
“I was strict with my employees about grooming and about being on time — the same way I was with myself,” he says. “In the beginning, I worked long hours — about 100 hours per week. It was a necessity.”
Moment of conversion
In the end, Monaghan never did go to college. There was simply never time.
Domino’s went on to become enormously successful, paving the way for Monaghan to use his passion for architecture to design his dream house in 1989. About one-third of the way into the project, Monaghan began reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. He read a chapter on pride one night, and it shook him to the core.
“It made me realize what a bad person I was. Pride is the source of all sin. I did so many things to impress people — cars, yachts, this house. C.S. Lewis was saying that the reason I was working so hard was to have more. More what? More than other people.”
Monaghan decided to stop the project immediately. To this day, the house remains exactly as it was — one-third finished.
“I had never liked to show off. This book made me realize that that’s what I had been doing. From then on, I took a millionaire’s vow of poverty. I gave up the planes, the yachts. I stopped construction of the house. I had enjoyed spending too much. It was a moment of conversion. I’m so ashamed of the way I was.”
Monaghan’s conversion had a profound impact on his future plans. He began to think about giving away all of his money while he was still alive. He made the decision public in 1998 when the Detroit Free Press quoted him as saying, “I want to die broke.”
Monaghan used his characteristic ingenuity in deciding how to make that happen.
“I put a lot of thought into how to use my charity dollars. I came to the conclusion that it was to help people learn the faith. There has been a major collapse of Catholic education at all levels, so I thought I could help grade schools and high schools — and I did do it — but then I realized that the best way would be to build a university. Not too many people were in a position to do this, so I felt that I had an obligation to do it.”
Founded in 2003, Ave Maria University was the first new U.S. Catholic university in 50 years. Today, it has 1,200 students. Monaghan’s vision for Ave Maria’s future is to have 4,000 undergrad and 1,500 graduate students.
“My biggest hope is to provide teachers for Catholic schools — K through graduate school — and vocations. We must teach teachers about the Catholic faith,” he says emphatically.
Monaghan began going to daily Mass in 1983 after hearing that Don Shula, the renowned Miami Dolphins coach, was a daily communicant.
“I figured if he could find the time, then so could I,” Monaghan says.
Part of Monaghan’s daily regimen in the Marines included exercise — a habit he has maintained throughout his life. Every day he exercises 35-40 minutes on the Stairmaster, 20 minutes of upper or lower body weights, and a six-mile walk.
While he exercises, Monaghan recites five mysteries of the rosary — the mystery for the day and then all four mysteries. A cooperator with Opus Dei, he prays the morning and evening Divine Office and does various other spiritual reading.
Monaghan is also a disciplined eater. Though he loves food, he has always been careful to maintain a healthy weight. Considering the thousands of pizzas he has made, this is no small feat.
Still the food entrepreneur, Monaghan opened a new hamburger delivery restaurant last year in Naples, Fla. He had once delivered burgers years ago through Domino’s because he thought pizza delivery was a fad. Could Monaghan’s Gyrene Burger be the next Domino’s? He doesn’t know, but he’s having fun getting the business off the ground.
On March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, Monaghan will turn 75. Asked about its significance, he shrugs. “It doesn’t mean anything. My wife is planning my birthday party. I always plan hers. My doctor says that I’m going to live to be 100.”
When questioned about his legacy in 100 years, Monaghan responds in his typical humble manner: “Well, I hope that I’m out of Purgatory by then!”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.