Life Father, Like Son

Donald D'Amour has a lot to thank his father for this Father's Day. His supermarket chain, for one.

As chief executive officer, D'Amour oversees more than 8,500 employees and a chain of 51 New England Big Y food retail stores. In 2000, D'Amour and his wife, Michele, established the Fides et Ratio Grant Competition for Catholic colleges and universities. They have since donated more than $1.5 million for the purpose of strengthening the Catholic mission at such institutions.

He spoke recently with Register staff writer Tim Drake.

Where did you grow up?

I was raised in Chicopee, Mass., which was heavily French-Canadian. I was the younger of two brothers. My mother's parents came to the United States from Canada before she was born. Ironically, I ended up marrying a French-Canadian, so our children are nearly 100% French.

I benefited from a parochial-school education. The Sisters of the Presentation of Mary taught us English and math in English, and everything else in French.

Not too long ago — about 10 years, I crossed paths with the nun who taught me seventh grade. She was retired, living in Maine and bragged to me how at the age of 84 she was running a library there. I recently received a letter from the Sisters and learned that at the age of 94 she's still alive and kicking, putting together rosaries.

Tell me about your father.

My dad was born in Quebec. He became a U.S. citizen when he was a toddler.

My father was a route salesman for Wonder Bread. In 1936 he was told he was of the wrong religion and nationality to advance in the company, so he borrowed $1,000 from his family and purchased one of the corner grocery stores on his bread route.

Eventually the business grew, and in the early 1940s he invited his kid brother to become his partner. That first store was situated at a point where the roads formed a Y, and that's how the Y Cash Market got its name. In 1952, when they put up their first supermarket, they changed the name to the Big Y.

How did you start out with Big Y?

When I was still in the single digits, I started pushing shopping carts and leveling the bread aisle each afternoon. When I reached the double digits, I would get up at 2 a.m. and go down to the local produce market during the summer. We would bargain with the farmers, leave our trucks there to be loaded and have breakfast, come back for the trucks and deliver the produce.

Did you hope to stay in the family business full time?

No, I didn't want to go into the business. I was bored to tears with stocking shelves and never intended to do it full time. I attended Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., for my undergraduate degree and was exposed to philosophy at the University of Louvain in Belgium. I was planning to become a psychiatrist but was intimidated by the medical school application process, so I went on to the University of Notre Dame for philosophy.

After studying at the Political Science Institute in Munich, Germany, I returned home. In 1968, while I was working on my dissertation, my mom got sick and passed away. I was tired of the academic world and wasn't thrilled with my success at teaching undergraduates, so I decided to get out of the ivory tower. I went home to help take care of my dad and ended up staying there and doing that. I started with the company full time in 1969 and became chief executive officer in 1980.

Do you find it difficult to maintain Catholic values in the business world?

You are who you are and you do what you do with that in mind. The issues we face are nothing but enhanced by the Catholic liberal arts training I had. Running a business means developing and dealing with people. I'm able to do that even though I've never taken an economics course. Plato thought that the best of all worlds would be where philosophers were kings. I'm not a king, just a chief executive officer.

Every week we hold meetings to touch base with our managers. One young mother was explaining to her daughter why she had to leave early for work — she had to prepare for this meeting. The daughter told her mom, “I understand, Mom. You have to go there early because you have to prepare for the supreme ruler of Big Y.”

In 2000 you set aside $1.5 million for the creation of the Fides et Ratio Grant Competition. What prompted that?

Michele had been suggesting that we look into worthy charities to share our good fortune with. The most proximate cause was my acquiring and reading Pope John Paul II's encyclical on faith and reason shortly after it was published in 1998. That got me thinking about what the Pope was talking about.

Having gone to every Catholic school known to man and serving as a trustee at Assumption College put it into context for me. That's where the seed came from to invite some Catholic colleges to a competition that wouldn't be imposing something from the outside but rather enabling the administration and trustees to do something they might not be able to do otherwise.

I had heard for years of people complaining about the preparedness of students and wondered what would happen if Catholic colleges tried to be a bit more aggressive in terms of attracting particular students who could contribute to the mission of a Catholic liberal arts education.

The grant was also based upon my own experience of having visited several Catholic colleges with my five children and seeing how they presented their cases. I found that it wasn't all that successful. There was a glaring disconnect between what the schools proclaim their mission to be and their admission practices. I wondered what would happen if we encouraged Catholic colleges to incorporate their admission programs as part of their mission.

How did you go about choosing the colleges that were invited to apply?

We had $1.5 million to offer, which would mean peanuts to a place like the University of Notre Dame. We had neither the resources nor the hubris to believe we could affect larger institutions, so we preselected 16 smaller schools that we invited to participate. Fourteen of them actually followed through with the application.

What were the goals of the competition?

We had seven concrete goals.

1) encourage a review of mission,

2) reassess admissions practices,

3) encourage a curriculum evaluation,

4) integrate all of the processes and programs institution-wide,

5) support faculty development,

6) reconsider the entire college life experience for students and

7) continue to bring the colleges together to learn from one another.

Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, was the top winner, receiving $600,000. Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., and Magdalen College in New Hampshire were the runners-up, receiving $300,000. Benedictine College in Atchinson, Kan.; St. Mary's College of Ave Maria University in Michigan; DeSales University in Pennsylvania; and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire received smaller grants. The fourth of five equal installments will be paid to the schools this fall.

What do you see as the fruits of the competition?

For some of the institutions, the grant saved them years in terms of mission development. Some were in mission drift. Many have changed their admission practices and now require students to write essays. Most of the schools now have a core integrated curriculum.

For Catholic liberal arts colleges to survive, it's not harmful for them to come out of the closet, if you will. It's the only way they will survive. They have to expose students to the Catholic flavor they have to offer.

I'm most proud of how one part of the grant has taken on a life of its own. Each year, a colloquium brings all of the schools together to share problems and solutions. This year's colloquium will be held July 13-15 at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Tim Drake writes from

St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy