Living the Faith: A Life of Tom Monaghan

Living the Faith: A Life of Tom Monaghan

by James Leonard


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472117437
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 09/14/2012
Pages: 424
Sales rank: 791,168
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

James Leonard is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor. His work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and All Media Guide.

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Living the Faith

A Life of Tom Monaghan

By James Leonard

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2012 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11743-7



Birth and Death

It was the potato famine that drove the Monaghans from Ireland to America and work that led them to Ann Arbor, a small town on the Huron River forty miles east of Detroit and home to the University of Michigan. The Monaghans were big people, blacksmiths by trade and Catholics by faith. On his father's side, Tom's grandfather was Stephen, the name of the first martyr and a family name, and his grandmother was Mary, the name of the mother of Jesus and the traditional name for Irish girls. Starting in 1912, Steve and Mary Monaghan had seven children: four boys — Francis Thomas (called Frank), Mike, Ed, and Jack — then three girls — Margaret (called Peg), Mary Ellen, and Agnes.

Having borne Steve seven living children in thirteen years, Mary then divorced him and left him with the children. Steve died shortly thereafter, we don't know why, and Frank, still only in the eighth grade, quit school to find work and raise his six younger brothers and sisters. He grew to be a big man like his father, and a well-liked man too. He played semipro baseball, a pitcher mostly but sometimes a catcher, and lots of women liked him, including a sweet but intense sixteen-year-old girl named Anna Geddes who he met at a party in late 1932. Frank was working on a dairy farm then, and Anna was attracted to the twenty year old's curly hair and quiet manner. He told her about himself, that he would've liked to have been a priest and that he didn't drink because he had ulcers. The sole support of his family since his father's death, Frank had already developed the condition that would kill him before he turned thirty.

Anna's father was Warren Geddes, a Scotsman, and her mother was Awema, a German. They were Lutherans living in Chelsea, a small town twenty-five miles west of Ann Arbor and home to Jiffy Mix brand muffins. Originally a photographer, Warren had owned an interest in movie theaters in five towns in southeastern Michigan, including Chelsea, but he sold out and retired in 1929 just before the stock market crashed. This meant that Geddes missed the movie boom of the thirties, but it also meant that Anna's family had money, not a lot but enough, during the Depression.

Warren was something of an eccentric. He never owned a car, and, although he and his wife lived on the edge of town, he would walk downtown to the library every day to read the newspapers and magazines. He also had his own garden and a tool shop where he fixed everything himself. Warren and Awema had two daughters: Anna, born in 1915; and Eva, born twelve years later. Anna was a small, intelligent girl, an incurable romantic who wrote poetry and got "enthusiastic" about things.

After a courtship of four years, Frank married Anna on April 14, 1936. Their wedding photograph shows them posed stiffly dressed in fancy clothes: him standing, a big man with wavy dark hair; and her sitting, a broad-faced woman with a too direct stare. For the first few months, the newlyweds lived in a two-room apartment in downtown Ann Arbor. But when Anna, then in training to be a nurse's aide, found she was pregnant, they decided they'd need more room. Frank's mother Mary owned a parcel of land in the country four miles west of town on Newport Road, and she sold them a corner lot for what amounted to an interest-free loan. We don't know why this kindness from mother to son, nor do we know why the son accepted his errant mother's gesture. But twelve years had passed since Mary deserted her family, her husband was dead, and after all, family is family, especially when a grandchild is on the way.

On a hill overlooking the river, Frank started but never finished a three-room A-frame house. At first Anna had to haul drinking water from a neighbor's well and use a nearby creek for washing up, but Frank soon dug them their own well and installed a pump in the kitchen. He also wired the place for electricity, and they even had a sort of icebox — a box with ice in it. By this time, Frank had a steady job driving a tractor-trailer, which paid well enough for him to buy a 1937 Pontiac, making the Monaghans one of the few families of their class in Depression era Michigan to own a brand new car.

Frank and Anna's first son, Thomas Stephen Monaghan, was born on March 25, 1937, Thomas from his father's middle name and Stephen from his father's father's name. When he was older, Anna liked to tell her son that when his father first saw him in the hospital, he said he looked like "a million dollars." Adjusted for inflation, Frank's was an astoundingly accurate prediction of his son's monetary value fifty years later.

Monaghan's earliest memory is of "running after Dad when I was about two years old. I wanted to be with him wherever he went. One time, my dad was going down to see a neighbor, and I wanted to go with him. And he wanted me to go with him, and my mother didn't want me to go. The car had a bumper on the back, so I snuck out and I got on the back bumper and we went down the road. And this is a bumpy road! He pulled in the driveway and he got out in the back and I ran up to him: 'Daddy! Daddy! Here I am!' And he gave me a big spanking!"

That spanking was the only time Monaghan could recall his father physically disciplining him. Otherwise, he remembered him as "a gentle man" who was always "very patient with me." His mother was much less patient, describing her son as "a holy terror" who needed "watching every minute." Monaghan described himself differently. "I was exuberant. I always seemed to have more energy than most kids. I didn't seem to get tired." He also recalled having "a lot of earaches" and "screaming in the middle of the night. We slept in the same room. I was in the crib and my mother and father were in the bed. I remember one night just being in awful pain." It must have been hard for the incurably romantic daughter of a man of independent means and the steady, sober son of a feckless mother to lie in bed in their unfinished home late at night, helpless while their son sobbed uncontrollably.

There's a photograph of the young Monaghan sitting with his father in the cab of his truck and another of him alone holding a toy truck. With his father, he has a happy smile, but alone his gaze is firm but wary. As an adult, he admitted that his father's house "must have been drafty and uncomfortable" and "its little rooms must have been crowded after my brother Jim was born in August 1939." But he also said that "it remains in my memory as warm and spacious as a mansion." The frame house was the young boy's paradise, his mansion on a hill overseen by a gentle, patient father who drove a big truck and a new car. It didn't last.

To Serve in Hell

"My dad's my hero," Monaghan told me nearly seventy years later. "My dad was the kind of guy ... a good people person ... level ... heart of gold ... give you the shirt off his back ... I don't know, when I get talking about my dad, I start crying."

How could he not? On Christmas Eve, 1941, Frank Monaghan died at twenty-nine years of age of peritonitis, an infection of the lining of the abdomen brought on by perforated ulcers. Inevitably fatal before penicillin, peritonitis causes acute physical pain but allows the sufferer to remain entirely lucid until the moment of death.

"When he died, it was very tough," Monaghan said. "I remember the Christmas tree with a model airplane under it." His mother and younger brother were with his father when he died at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, but, though not quite five years old, Monaghan was apparently home alone.

While he could not recall anything else about the next few days, Monaghan vividly remembered going to the funeral home for the viewing. "Mother took me with her and held my hand as we walked up to his casket. I was frightened. It didn't seem right for Dad to be lying there. I pulled away from her grip and jumped up on the casket. I grabbed him and hugged him tight, crying, 'Wake up, Daddy! Wake up, Daddy!'" All he remembered after that was being pulled off of his father and carried out of the room.

It took Monaghan a long time to accept that his father was dead. He spoke in a later interview of looking out the window the next Christmas, seeing car lights on the snow, and thinking, "My daddy's coming back!" He said in another, "[For] a few years, I had this recurring feeling: 'My daddy's coming back! He wouldn't leave me.'"

Frank Monaghan didn't come back, and as surely as his father Steve's early death changed his life, Frank's early death changed his son's life. On Frank's passing, Anna received $2,000 from an insurance policy. She paid off her mother-in-law's loan for the Newport Road property with half, then sold the property, putting the proceeds plus the other half of the insurance money in the bank. Anna moved to town and got a job at the Argus Camera Company, but her earnings were only $27.50 a week while her expenses were $30 per week with her two sons. Without her husband's income, Monaghan said, his mother "couldn't see how she could support my brother and me."

"Besides, she'd always had a difficult time managing me," Monaghan wrote later, "so she decided to put us into a foster home." This may seem an odd solution with an odder explanation. Why would she put her preschool boys in foster care and not with her parents or mother-in-law or other relatives? We don't know why her parents didn't take the boys, but there was apparently bad blood between Anna and Frank's family. A big woman who smoked and drank, Frank's mother, Mary, had recently remarried and didn't think enough of her oldest son's family to introduce her new husband to them. And Peg, his father's favorite sister, barely contained her hostility toward Anna.

But why put them in a foster home because Anna had difficulty with her nearly five-year-old son? When I asked him about this seventy years later, all Monaghan would say was "I don't know," giving the impression that he'd never thought about it before and would rather not think about it now. He also sidestepped my questions about how his father's death changed him, his mother, and his brother. But he would say that he didn't blame anyone for his father's death — not his dad, his mom, his God, or himself.

Shortly after their father's death, the Monaghan boys went to live with a couple on North Main Street and, when that didn't work out, with another couple on Joy Road. We don't know why they left the first couple, although Monaghan remembered the woman on Joy Road as having been "mean." They finally came to live with Frank and Maria Woppman, a childless German American couple. Frank worked as a butcher in a downtown grocery, and Maria was a housewife. Robert Fulmer, the market's deliveryman, remembered Woppman. "He'd come to work and make sausage. I don't remember that he ever said much, but I believe he had a very heavy German accent."

The daughter of the market's owner also remembered Woppman. "He was a little guy," said Cynthia Mortonson, "and a very good sausage maker. But he wasn't what you'd call affectionate. He wasn't mean, but you would not want to hang around with Frank." Mortonson remembered Maria Woppman as well. "She didn't seem like the kind that would want to have kids in the house."

Monaghan himself recalled the Woppmans as "very strict. They spoke to each other in German and were arguing all the time. I don't know how they ever stayed together." Anna had converted to Catholicism after marrying Frank, and the Monaghan family had attended Ann Arbor's St. Thomas Church, but not only weren't the Woppmans Catholics, they didn't even go to church. Monaghan said this "seemed strange" to him. "I asked Uncle Frank, we called him Uncle Frank, how come you don't go to church, and he said 'just bad people go to church.' I knew he was wrong, even at that age."

Although Monaghan later wrote that he enjoyed living with the Woppmans, he admitted that Uncle Frank often called him "ugly" and "dummkopf," a total change from his patient and understanding father Frank. But the arrangement ended two years after his father's death when the Woppmans told Anna that Monaghan was uncontrollable and they didn't want to take care of him or his brother anymore.

So when seven-year-old Tommy was halfway through the first grade at Stone Public School, Anna decided to go back to nursing and put her sons in boarding school. She enrolled in Mercy Hospital's School of Nursing in Jackson, a city thirty-three miles west of Ann Arbor and home to the Michigan State Penitentiary, and paid for Tom and Jim's room, board, and tuition at St. Joseph's Home for Boys, a Catholic boarding school and orphanage also in Jackson, starting after the Christmas holidays in January 1943. "Her plan was to go back to school and become a registered nurse," Monaghan wrote later. "Then, after she got a good job, she would take us back to live with her again. That's what happened, but it took a long time."

St. Joseph's was run by the Sisters of Felix, an order of Polish nuns whose mission was to gain souls for Christ, Jesus's title as the Messiah, the redeemer of humanity. Tom had gone to church with his family on Sundays, but this was his first face-to-face encounter with the Catholic Church — and it proved decisive.

"The orphanage was in a huge old mansion," wrote Monaghan later. "I loved its architecture. It had grand Victorian lines topped by a marvelous cupola that commanded a view of the vast, terraced front lawn. The grounds were surrounded by a wrought-iron fence and had a giant beech tree that was a landmark in the community." This early encounter with architecture also proved decisive.

Fifty boys from kindergarten through eighth grade lived at St. Joseph's. Not all of them were orphans; many of the boarders were half orphans like the Monaghan brothers. Father Philip Schweda, a canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of Lansing, Michigan, also boarded at St. Joseph's in the late '40s and early '50s. "We referred to it as the Home," he recalled, "and for me, it was a very good experience. [The Sisters] were strict but motherly. The food wasn't the best, but prayers were important and we had a chapel where we went to Mass every day."

Monaghan remembered that on his first day at St. Joseph's he hit a "boy who seemed repulsive to me. I'm not sure why, but he had some sort of cap or bandage on his head, and I found that so offensive that I hit him." One can imagine the impact that random act of violence had on his reputation with both the sisters and the other boarders.

"I had a temper," remembered Monaghan. "I was kind of small so I got picked on a lot. And I looked younger than I was so I probably got in more fights than the average guy." He wrote years later that "the whole time" he was at St. Joseph's, "I never got over the feeling that my existence was abnormal, that my lot in life was unjust. I remember feeling intensely unhappy about my strange new surroundings."

For the first and second grade, the boys were taught at St. Joseph's. "My schooling in the orphanage began on a high note, thanks to the inspiration of a gentle, loving teacher, Sister Berarda," Monaghan wrote. Because of her, he said he became "an absolute star at everything I did. I was the best jigsaw-puzzle solver, the best Ping-Pong player, the best marble shooter." He was also so good at his first assigned task, polishing the banister of the Home's grand central staircase, that with Sister Berarda's approval, he was soon promoted to the highly coveted job of cleaning the chapel. She even coached him so he could become an alter boy in the second grade.

"Sister Berarda always encouraged me," he wrote, "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 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.'" At the time, however, the closest Monaghan came to any of his goals was serving at Mass and listening to the Tigers on the radio, but his teacher proved surprisingly prescient about his future.

"I remember Tom very well," Sister Mary Berarda Osinski recalled forty years later. "He was a lovable child who needed a lot of attention. He was too small to play with the older boys, who would have games on the lawn. But I can remember him sitting on the sidelines, always watching."

Sister Berarda's niece often visited her at St. Joseph's, and she remembered her with enormous fondness. "She was always smiling, and always made you feel good when you were with her," said Nancy Trudell. "She was a real peanut, maybe five foot three at most. Her mother and dad came from Poland. They'd had four children in Poland that died. Sister Berarda was the first child born in this country."


Excerpted from Living the Faith by James Leonard. Copyright © 2012 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Are You Catholic? xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Prologue: Letters from Ave Maria 1

Part 1 The American Dream

1 Uncontrollable 17

2 Fool Me Once 41

3 Fool Me Twice 59

4 Fool Me Three Times 73

5 To the Top 89

6 At the Top 100

Part 2 The Dream of Empire

7 The Largest in the World 119

8 The Great Sin 137

9 At the Bottom 155

10 In the Beginning 172

11 Salvation 192

Part 3 The Catholic Dream

12 The Life and Death of Ave Maria College 207

13 The Rise and Fall of the Ave Maria School of Law 238

14 The Sword and Shield of Faith 263

15 The Great and All-Powerful Monaghan 283

16 Truth and Power 301

17 The Monaghan Myth 324

18 The Final Judgment 348

Epilogue: The Sun Will Always Shine 373

Index 387

Illustrations following page 204

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