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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Is Tom Monaghan the Next Harry John?

Sometimes history repeats itself. The exact manner and circumstances of the repetition are not always identical, but the similarities are significant enough to allow us to say that it is a "repetition." Such is the strange case of eccentric Catholic millionaire Harry John. Harry John was the grandson of Frederick Miller. All good Catholics in the midwest should know Miller as the founder of the Miller Brewing Company. As heir to the Miller Brewing fortune, John amassed great wealth and decided to dedicate that wealth to Catholic causes. For that purpose, he founded the De Rance Foundation.

Raymond Arroyo, in his biography of Mother Angelica, offers the following glimpse into modus operandi of Mr. John:

The De Rance Foundation was the brainchild of Harry John....The gangling, eccentric Harry John looked more like a homeless man than a millionaire....In the 1950's, this wild visionary, compelled by faith, plowed his entire 47 percent stake in Miller Brewing Company stock into the De Rance Foundation....Harry John later sold out to Phillip Morris for $97 million. With the cash, he underwrote deep-sea treasure expeditions, collected reams of religious art, fed his personal obsession with the Sacred Heart, and built a plum-colored headquarters for the foundation on the outskirts of Milwaukee.

....Racks of religious art, pickaxes, and bowls of exotic nuts littered Harry John's office. Though fascinated by [Mother Angelica], he was not convinced that she could start a TV network.

Arroyo recounts the story of Mother Angelica's relationship--albeit brief--with Mr. John. He was extremely generous in donating some of the start up cash for EWTN. After the initial donation, Mother Angelica returned to Mr. John again. From Arroyo's book:

[The nuns] abbess headed to Milwaukee to meet with Harry John. This time, she asked for $700,000 to pay off a portion of the satellite dish. So long as he could control the dish, John was willing to donate the money. It was a deal that Angelica refused to accept, even as her options dwindled. Convinced that she needed independence, she accepted a bank loan for the money at a prime interest rate that could have been as high as 23 percent.


Willing to bet what was left of his stake of the Miller Brewing Company fortune, Harry John impetuously founded Santa Fe Communications, a twenty-four-hour state-of-the-art Catholic cable network. Never mind that he knew virtually nothing about television. Inspired by the example of Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, and, yes, Mother Angelica, Harry John believed that he could improve the Christian TV genre. He immediately purchased Gower Studios in Hollywood and a chain of satellite studios...Top-flight writers, producers, directors, and technical staff were recruited to man the facilities. The very best equipment lined Santa Fe's control rooms.

Harry John would eventually spend more than $2 million a week on his television colossus....Santa Fe Communications had seriously drained John's financial wellspring by that point. In little more than a year, $100 million of his De Rance Foundation assets were gone. Hard up for cash, John borrowed against his home and raided his children's education funds, until his wife had had enough. Concerned about his judgment to say nothing of the wild spending, Erica John petitioned the court for a restraining order, essentially removing Harry from the Board of De Rance.

Sound familiar? Replace the Miller Brewing Company with Domino's. Replace the De Rance Foundation with Ave Maria Foundation. Replace deep-sea treasure expeditions with buying a major league baseball franchise, antique cars or Al Jolson recordings. Replace plum-colored headquarters with Frank Lloyd-Wright inspired architecture. The art fetish seems to be a common denominator. One millionaire who knows nothing about television thinking that he could improve the Christian TV genre with the best equipment and facilities; another millionaire who knows nothing about university education/legal education thinking that he could improve Catholic higher education with the best equipment and facilities. One millionaire who would donate with the proviso that he would control...ok, two millionaires who would donate with the proviso that they would control. One millionaire who drained his Foundation's assets...two?

What are the odds of two Catholic eccentric millionaires in such similar circumstances? Are the supporters of Monaghan attempting to save him from the same fate as Harry John: a mentally imbalanced man abandoned by all--even by those he loved? We are tough on Mr. Monaghan to be sure, but a similar end we do not wish for him. It would be shameful if those closest to him did not prevent such an end.