Ave Maria founder Tom Monaghan is a man of faith, plans and action

MARCI ELLIOTT

All he wanted to do was work hard to make something of himself. And someday, maybe, to provide for a wife and family. And be an architect.

Tom Monaghan is the founder of Ave Maria University, including its temporary headquarters at The Vineyards development off Vanderbilt Beach Road in North Naples. Lisa Krantz/Staff

Just the same, he's involved architecture in much of his life.

Now, he wants to change the face of northeastern Collier County by building Ave Maria University and the surrounding town of Ave Maria.

Monaghan, 65, is an enigma to many people trying to figure out who he is, what he's done, what he's doing now, why he's doing it here, and how it all fits together.

He became famous years ago, thanks to, of all things, pizza. He started Domino's, a coast-to-coast pizza delivery business that propelled him to build not one empire, but two: one of pizzas and one of Catholic educational institutions. The empires have brought him power, but he'd be the last person to say he has it.

Now, the founder of Domino's and former owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball club wants to build a Catholic university here.

Monaghan-watchers and Monaghan critics may be scratching their heads, wondering why he would want to do something like that more than 1,000 miles from home.

It makes sense to Monaghan. And the people closest to him know it does.

"I can tell you right now that there is nothing shady or illegal about Tom Monaghan or anything he's involved with," said longtime friend Bill Colburn, a recent Naples part-time resident from Michigan who's helping Monaghan set up a chain of founders' clubs for Ave Maria University. "Everything he does is from the heart."

Quiet, soft-spoken, unassuming Monaghan is becoming used to being bombarded with questions about why he wants to build Ave Maria University — the first Catholic university to be built in the United States in more than 40 years — in Collier County, on rural land between Naples and Immokalee.

He gives the same answer every time: "I want to go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can. I can't think of a better way to do it than through Catholic education."

He means it.

The Ave Maria plans

Monaghan came to Naples a year ago to look for a place to build a university somewhere near Naples, a place he had visited before and had come to enjoy.

He had sold Domino's Pizza for $1 billion and put more than $200 million of it into Ave Maria University, which he said would be "unabashedly Catholic" and someday rival Notre Dame with Division I-level sports.

Nicholas J. Healy Jr., tapped as university president, came with Monaghan and took part in a press conference and interviews March 27, 2002.

They said they were exploring sites in and around Naples and other parts of Collier County and elsewhere, but they weren't prepared to give any definite locations yet.

Back in Ann Arbor, Mich., where Monaghan originally wanted to build his university, elected officials were pondering a request for a zoning amendment Monaghan had submitted to build the future Ave Maria University on property called Domino's Farms.

Ave Maria University founder Tom Monaghan shows volunteers a rosary that was blessed by the pope and which he carries in his pocket while visiting the temporary headquarters of Ave Maria University in North Naples in January. Lisa Krantz/Staff
The Domino's Pizza chain headquarters was on the site, as was an office park that's home to 40 corporations and organizations. A rambling, spacious property with a buffalo herd and a petting farm, Domino's Farms had plenty of room for a university.

If the rezoning weren't approved, Monaghan and Healy said at the Naples press conference, a Collier County site would be even more likely.

On April 15, 2002, the Ann Arbor Charter Township voted 5-2 to deny the rezoning request. On Nov. 20, Monaghan and Healy held a formal announcement ceremony at the LaPlaya Beach and Golf Resort north of Naples.

This time, it was official: Ave Maria University would be built on 750 acres in Collier County, two miles north of Oil Well Road and one mile west of Camp Keais Road, targeted for opening in 2006.

And it would have its own town, called the Town of Ave Maria.

Things began moving fast.

Healy moved to Naples and settled into Ave Maria's temporary headquarters at The Vineyards development off Vanderbilt Beach Road. Plans began to unfold, and Monaghan and his team became entrenched in the long, arduous permitting process.

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, a dynamic Jesuit priest who founded Campion College in San Francisco and has an immense background in Catholic education and theology, came on board as the proposed university's chancellor.

Ave Maria bought more property next to the temporary site, and will build a row of duplexes, a chapel and more buildings.

The reception in Naples has been exceptional, the trio said.

And that part about Monaghan wanting to go to heaven and take other people with him?

Fessio said: "He couldn't be more serious."

Meanwhile, back in Michigan

In the excitement of Ave Maria University coming to Collier County, locals soon began asking the obvious question: Why did Ann Arbor officials turn it down?

"They're nuts," said longtime Monaghan friend Trudy Ritter of Ann Arbor. "Some of them are jealous of Tom, regardless of all the jobs he's provided in the town, all his charitable works, everything he's done for people. It infuriates all of us who know Tom. Here's a generous man, who I truly believe is destined by God to do good things."

Not so, said Michael Moran, supervisor of the Ann Arbor Charter Township Board of Trustees. He made the motion to deny the zoning amendment.

Whether Monaghan was destined by God wasn't a concern of board members. What was a concern to them, Moran said, was that a university — with buildings for classrooms, administration, residence halls and other uses — would compromise the environment. And change the makeup of the office park.

"We saw no reason to change it to some other use," Moran said. "He gave no demonstrated reason why the office park should not be functioning as an office park. The university proposal would have dramatically increased the ground floor coverage. The property area had drainage issues."

Besides, Moran said, the Ann Arbor Charter Township Board of Trustees had supported Monaghan's projects most times in the past.

AT A GLANCE

For more information on Tom Monaghan and Ave Maria University, visit the Web sites, www.avemaria.edu and www.dominosfarms.com

"As for the accusations of jealousy, we hear that all the time," Moran said. "It's just not true."

Trudy Ritter doesn't buy that. She says Monaghan is singled out by the trustees.

"This man has been vilified by this board," said Ritter, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in 2000. "It is a clique. If they don't like you, you're done for."

Barry Murray and Hank Byma, of the Smith Group JJR design and planning consulting firm, represented Monaghan and Domino's Farms during the rezoning hearing.

Murray and Byma were surprised at the trustee majority's denial.

"It was pretty amazing, actually," Byma said. "It was largely rejected because the trustees felt the housing aspects of the college were inappropriate. The college would have been small, with 1,200 students maximum. It would have been a wonderful use (for Domino's Farms)."

There was no appeal to the trustees' 5-2 vote, Byma said.

Colburn said the political climate of Ann Arbor had a lot to do with Monaghan's problems there and his decision to build Ave Maria University near Naples.

"Ann Arbor is an interesting place," Colburn said. "Tom has been in the Southeast Michigan political scene a long time. That corner of the state is a mix of the very liberal to the very conservative, and there are a lot of very outspoken people there. It's a very political climate."

Monaghan, a consummate Catholic who lives steadfastly by the laws of the Vatican as well as by the commandments of God, was a frequent target of liberals who openly opposed his beliefs.

"One of the things that hurt him badly was the abortion issue," Colburn said. "Female students picketed his Domino's Pizza franchises because of his pro-life stance. But it was the franchise managers who were affected — and Tom felt they were being penalized because of his belief. It hurts his heart when something like that happens. Tom is led by his heart, as well as a sharp mind. He has a tremendous depth of feeling."

Clearly, Monaghan said, the political climate around Naples is much more comfortable, with its high percentage of Republicans, conservatives, mature population and bounty of Catholics.

And a perfect place, he said, for his university.

The Monaghan stories

Monaghan took over a small pizza store his brother, Jim, told him about and began delivering pizzas to local university students. The delivery business was an immediate hit. College students and pizzas were a natural combination, and delivery was a student's dream come true.

Because college students didn't have much money, Monaghan made 9-inch pizzas they could afford. But he didn't make any money off of them.

"Poor Tom. He ran himself ragged making all those 9-inch pizzas, then he'd deliver them himself in his old, beat-up Volkswagen," Colburn said. "He told me later: 'The day I stopped making 9-inch pizzas was the day I started making money.'"

Like many devoted Christians, Monaghan frequently fasts when there's something special going on, Colburn said.

He will go without food up until about 5 p.m., then he will eat a bowl of dry cereal.

"No milk — just a bowl of Wheaties or Rice Krispies, whatever's on hand," Colburn said.

From an early age, Monaghan became passionately interested in architecture, almost idolizing the late Frank Lloyd Wright and other significant architects.

Monaghan's educational dream, which he was never quite able to carry through, was to earn a degree in architecture and become an architect himself. Somehow, life and pizzas got in the way.

But the love of architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright's work still remain. At Domino's Farms, where Monaghan maintains his business headquarters, the address is Frank Lloyd Wright Drive.

Domino's Farms is one of the Monaghan stories.

In addition to its businesses, it has a huge cafeteria for employees on the premises, a petting farm with traditional and rare animals, and buffaloes.

Buffaloes?

"Yes, they're part of Tom Monaghan's thinking, too," Colburn said. "They don't seem a bit strange to Tom's family and friends. To those who know him, they fit right in."

Monaghan's story

It's hard for people who don't know Tom Monaghan well to get inside his mind, his friends say.

"To Tom, it all makes sense — the childhood, the college days, the pizzas, the architecture, the schools, the heaven thing — even the buffaloes," Bill Colburn said. "When you get to know him and become familiar with all the things he's done, you know there's something going on here. I can't put my finger on it — no one can. But there's something going on."

The passion for architecture, Colburn said, is somehow linked with Monaghan's appreciation for order and organization, for things of beauty and how they give comfort to the soul: "Tom sees it. Others don't grasp it the way he does."

Monaghan — quiet, shy, soft-spoken and unassuming — just grins bashfully at the way others regard him.

For someone who made $1 billion from the sale of Domino's Pizza and is investing $200 million in an "unabashedly Catholic" university in rural Collier County, Monaghan is anything but a stereotype.

Healy calls Monaghan "an extraordinarily disciplined person and a genuinely devout Catholic — not just of outward appearance, but of deep faith."

"Sometimes I'm envious of his self-discipline," Healy said. "He's definitely a visionary, but unlike a lot of visionaries, he delivers. Talk is easy. It's the delivery that's hard."

Monaghan says no one has ever criticized his heaven-bound goals.

"Most people believe in God," he said. "It's a national tendency, the flow of things. There's not a purpose for being here except to serve God."

Monaghan didn't always have that conviction.

It evolved through the years, and those years included many in which Monaghan lived in the absence of religion in the home.

Monaghan's early years were spent in a family that included his father, Francis; mother, Anna; and brother, Jim. They lived in Jackson, Mich. His father died when Monaghan was 4 years old. Anna Monaghan was in nursing school.

"She had a lot to overcome," Monaghan said. "She wasn't a very good mother. She was temperamental, but she loved us. I remember my dad well. He died Christmas Eve of 1941 of ulcers. He was 29. I loved my dad."

Monaghan's brother, Jim, an electrician, took a different path. He didn't have the drive to make the big moves the way Tom did.

"My brother's brilliant, too. He's just not ambitious," Monaghan said.

After their father's death, Monaghan lived in a foster home, an orphanage, a detention home, and on an aunt and uncle's farm. He loved the farm.

The orphanage was run by Felician nuns, who were Polish — and strict.

After high school, Monaghan was on his own.

In a post office one day, he saw a recruiting poster.

"'Sign up for three years, get two years of college' — all baloney," he said.

He signed up with the U.S. Marines and served in the infantry between the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts. Being in the Marine Corps was one of the best parts of his life, Monaghan said. It conditioned him for leadership and business, skills that stayed with him throughout his adult life.

While Monaghan was working to pay his way through college, brother Jim worked as a mail carrier and enjoyed going to a certain pizzeria for lunch. He told Tom about it, and the owner talked Tom into buying it. The Monaghan brothers put $500 down and borrowed $100 from Jim's credit union. Tom Monaghan was 23 years old.

"Jim got cold feet and backed out," Monaghan said. "I paid him for his share of the pizza restaurant, and bought an old Volkswagen for $200 and pioneered pizza delivery. I didn't know it would be that profitable. It's what nobody wants but the customer."

It was during his pizza delivery days to Central Michigan University that Monaghan met his wife, Marjorie.

"I was smitten with her," he said. "She was as cute as a bug's ear."

The rest is history. Monaghan history.

Now, after 40 years and more than $1 billion later, Monaghan looks back over his early life and Domino's Pizza years and says he did the right things, including selling the business.

"I've never been happier with what I'm doing," he said. "I didn't want to do the pizza business forever. There's a big burden with a company that gets that big."

What he's doing now is devoting his life to the Catholic church and Catholic education. He's built many Catholic schools, a law school, colleges in Michigan and Nicaragua, a program link with an ancient monastery in Austria, and now, Ave Maria University.

He knows he has critics and objectors, but they don't faze him. He's staunchly Catholic, anti-homosexuality, anti-abortion, pro-Vatican and pro-family.

The years of instability in his childhood, the orphanage and foster homes, military service, working hard, trying to make something of himself — all have combined to form the man from Michigan named Tom Monaghan.

"He's the kind of person who'd be thrilled if you invited him to your house for a hot dog," Colburn said. "After all he's done, he'd be thrilled at something like that. Tom has very, very strong faith. But there's something else beyond faith that's at work. There's something going on there."

For more information on Tom Monaghan and Ave Maria University, visit the Web sites, www.avemaria.edu and www.dominosfarms.com.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Marci Elliott. "Ave Maria founder Tom Monaghan is a man of faith, plans and action." Naples Daily News (April 13, 2003).

This article reprinted with permission from Marci Elliott and the Naples Daily News.

THE AUTHOR

Marci Elliott is the higher education reporter at the Naples Daily News in Naples, Fla. She is an award-winning journalist and graduate of Catholic elementary and prep schools, and attends St. Ann Catholic Church in Naples. She holds a master of arts in political science from Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala. and a bachelor of arts in communication studies with a concentration in journalism from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Copyright © 2003 Naples Daily News


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