Around the time he sold Domino's Pizza and the Detroit Tigers about 20 years ago, Tom Monaghan stopped doing most interviews. He devoted himself to Catholic education, most prominently by founding Ave Maria University, now based near Naples, Fla., where he spends much of his time these days raising money for the school.
But in a rare Michigan appearance recently, Monaghan, who just turned 75, showed he still has a knack for making the sort of comments that made him swear off doing interviews two decades ago.
Known as a devout Roman Catholic who attends daily Mass, Monaghan told an audience of nonprofit fund raisers, "If it wasn't for my faith I'd make Hugh Hefner look like a piker."
And while acknowledging that he was speaking to a mixed audience, he freely criticized brands of Catholic religious practice that are theologically looser than his own strict faith, particularly in Catholic schools and universities today: "The worst thing you can do is send your kids to a Catholic school if you want them to retain their faith."
If off-putting to some listeners, Monaghan also had people lining up after his talk for him to autograph their copies of his 1986 autobiography "Pizza Tiger," which his staff gave out to the audience at the start of the breakfast meeting.
The event that drew Monaghan was the annual meeting of the Planned Giving Roundtable of Southeast Michigan, a professional association of people who raise money for the likes of universities, foundations and charities.
"I don't think anybody's thought more about how to invest their charitable dollars than I have," he told the audience. "I never found anybody that came up with a better idea than helping people get to heaven."
Speaking of raising money to further Catholic education at Ave Maria, he said, "It's not a short-term investment. It's a very, very, very long-term investment. It's eternity."
There were lighter moments, too, as when he drew laughter by saying, "I wanted to be a priest from the time I was in the second grade, until I sat behind Lois in the seventh grade."
Monaghan estimated that he has given away 90 percent to 95 percent of his pizza fortune, which the media in the late '80s estimated at $1 billion. He said the only wealth he has left is a lot of real estate at the Domino's Farms complex in Ann Arbor, property that is mortgaged.
The vast majority of his wealth went to building Ave Maria University. Monaghan said he recently realized, "Maybe I can make more money than I can raise," so he has started a new hamburger delivery company.
Called Gyrene Burger (the name a nod to Monaghan's days in the U.S. Marine Corps and to Ave Maria's team nickname), the company operates one outlet in Naples, Fla., but Monaghan said he wants to build the chain up to 20,000 outlets - almost four times as many outlets as Domino's had when he owned the company.
Gyrene's employees wear military-style camouflage uniforms and salute when making deliveries. The stores will resemble military-style Quonset huts covered with camouflage.
If building a new business at 75 seems ambitious, Monaghan has no worries. His said his doctor told him he is healthy enough to live to 100. He exercises daily on a stair machine and lifts weights. He complains of spending too much on airplanes due to a heavy travel schedule, spending most weekdays at Ave Maria and weekends home with his wife in Ann Arbor. He was getting over a sore throat Friday and his voice was a little raspy.
Raised in a Catholic orphanage, Monaghan rose to prominence in the 1960s and '70s by building up a single pizza outlet to the world's largest pizza delivery chain, with several thousand units by the 1980s.
Known for his many enthusiasms, he bought the Tigers in 1982, collected classic cars, and owned a museum-quality collection of Frank Lloyd Wright memorabilia, even designing Domino's headquarters in Ann Arbor in Wright's classic Prairie School style.
But by the late 1980s, the pull of his Catholic faith caused him to turn his life in a different direction. He sold the Tigers and Domino's, halted worked on a vast Wright-inspired mansion he was building for himself near Ann Arbor, and vowed to give away his fortune before he died.
Other thoughts Monaghan shared:
-On the Detroit Tigers' performance so far this season: "Frustrating. They seem to have everything they need. I'm confident they'll break loose."
-On expecting to live to 100: "That's an awesome responsibility, to have 25 years left. How am I best going to use it? I want to do as much good as I can while I'm still around."
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