Irish American of the Year: Thomas Moran

2006 Annual Report Photo

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
April / May 2008

The name Moran is a derivative of the Irish word mór meaning big. Tom Moran, our somewhat reluctant Irish American of the Year (I suspect he agreed to accept the honor in the hopes that it would draw attention to Concern Worldwide), is big by name and big by nature. He looks like a line backer – the kind of guy you would want in your first line of defense. And for many people, especially in Africa, he is just that – the smiling, red-haired white guy who comes to visit and goes away leaving them better off.

Tom, who has achieved great success as a businessman – he’s chairman, president and CEO of the insurance giant Mutual of America – is also chairman of Concern Worldwide U.S., the Irish-born relief organization that operates in 30 of the poorest countries in the world.
In addition to Concern, Tom has contributed to many humanitarian and community causes, and has used his quiet style of diplomacy to promote peace in Northern Ireland. He serves on a number of boards, including Aer Lingus, the North American Advisory Board of the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business at University College Dublin (UCD), the Taoiseach’s Economic Advisory Board, the American Cancer Society Foundation and the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

Married to Joan, whose family, the Maloneys and Burkes have roots in counties Clare and Limerick, Tom was born on Staten Island, New  York in 1952, to an Italian-Irish-American mother and an Irish-American father. He has a brother Jack and a sister Bess. And is quick to point out that his Italian grandfather was a lover of all things Irish, especially Peggy O’Neill, his wife, Tom’s grandmother. He will tell you just as fast that it was Bill Flynn, the then chairman of Mutual of America, who introduced him to the notion that it was time for peace in Northern Ireland. Tom was on board in a heartbeat, mostly behind the scenes where he nudged, cajoled, and made friends on all sides – getting his point across with humor and persistence.

The quotes in the following pages say much about the high regard in which Tom Moran is held by his contemporaries. He himself shies away from the limelight. When he is the center of attention, he draws the focus to others – the life lessons he learned working alongside Benny the hot dog man at Nathan’s, or from the guys in the garage he met driving a cab during his college years. In his spare time, he still likes to drive – one of his several motorbikes.

He would much rather be out for a spin than be interviewed, but he was, as always, gracious when  I sat down with him recently.

Tell me about your early mentors.
Actually, it goes back to grammar school and not being able to speak until the first or second grade. The good nuns of the Daughters of Divine Charity on Staten Island worked with me and got me to speak, and put up with me the years that I couldn’t.  I owe them a great deal, they were terrific, and I still support them when I can.

Then  at 14, I began my working career with a job as a janitor at my high school. Many of the lessons I learned from the full-time janitors, Arty, Frank and Dominic, are still with me. All of them were ancient, I thought. I realize now that they probably hadn’t reach 50 years of age. But what I learned from each of them is that every job is deserving of respect. Dominic and I used to take turns mowing the football field, and at 14, I had a great deal of energy, yet I could never get the field mowed in the time that Dominic did, and he always looked like he was going so slow. But it was the fact that he understood the rhythm of the job and had respect for the job, that I still had to learn. I believe, to this day, that every job has a certain rhythm to it, and that every job is deserving of respect.

Following my janitorial experience, I worked as the French fries man at Nathan’s, a short-order cook at a dental factory and as a cemetery worker. All of these experiences reinforced what I had already learned at the age of 14.

At Nathan’s, I worked alongside Benny the hot dog man. In addition to being the very best at his trade, Benny knew how to make his job fun, singing out “A pound of bread, a pound of meat, and all the mustard you can eat.” The sense of pride and joy he had in his job made all of us enjoy our own jobs that much more.

Didn’t you also drive a cab?
It might have been while driving a taxi at two o’clock in the morning during my college years that I developed my passionate belief in the greatness of our country, and the power of the American Dream. I came to understand how hard people are willing to work under what, at times, can be extreme conditions, just because of the promise of a better life for their kids.

Everyone I met at the garage, while waiting for my cab to come in from the day shift, was hoping for something more from life, either for themselves or their children. And, it is only in the United States of America that those dreams can be realized.

When did you join Mutual?
I started at Mutual of America in 1975. I had a very important position at the time [smiles].Whenever a pension was sold, I’d paperclip anything that needed to be signed. My boss at the time was Juana Luna, and she’s still a dear friend of mine, still working at Mutual today. She always made me feel as if I was important to the company. And when there was a pile of contracts that had been paperclipped, I was sent to have them signed, by then president Bill Flynn. What was remarkable, and again another great lesson for me, was that Bill always took the time to ask me how I thought the company was doing. It made me feel as if I was important to the company and that he genuinely cared about what I had to say. In fact, he was probably using the time to sign the contracts, but he always had a way about him that each of us understood how important we were to the company. We also understood that if there was ever a time that we were in need, Bill would be there for us.

At the Concern dinner, Elie Wiesel said that while he has come across “humanity” in individuals, the first time he came across it in an entire organization was when he encountered Mutual of America.

Mutual of America is the only corporate board that Elie serves on. He sees us as a unique organization that genuinely cares about making a difference, and that there is, very much, a soul to Mutual of America. In my opinion, that soul was first created by the organizers of the company, and nurtured and developed by Bill Flynn in his years there. Hopefully now with my time, I also care deeply about the same issues, which are all involved with making the world a better place. And each and every one of our employees share in that commitment. One hundred percent of our employees participate in some kind of philanthropy, either through volunteering their time or making donations. We are a company that is as proud of what we do outside of the industry as we are with what we accomplish in the industry.

I once heard you say something like “Real strength does not come from how tall you stand or if you can stand at all.”
I’ve been a long supporter – since 1992 – of the National Center for Disability Services, now known as ABILITIES, and the Henry Viscardi School, which is a combined pre-school, grammar school, and high school for young people who have physical disabilities. Much like the disabled people I have met in other parts of the world, these are people who show great strength and dignity. I think our society has still not fully accepted the contribution that can be made by disabled persons, and the Viscardi school does a wonderful job of developing teaching techniques that will ultimately be put into the mainstream schools, and will benefit all of our society, not simply disabled children. These children are going to make great contributions, and have made great contributions, and will continue to do so if given the chance.

I also know that Mutual of America is a sponsor of public television.
We’re very influenced by our traditional client base, which is the not-for- profit sector, and that client base also cares about making a difference in the world. Public Broadcasting is the one opportunity where a voice is given to the really significant issues facing our country and our society, and it’s for that reason that Mutual of America has aligned itself with Public Broadcasting. Bill Moyers, we are his sole corporate underwriter and have been for more than a decade, and the relationship is one that we take a great deal of pride in. Not because we agree with everything Bill may say on a particular show at a particular time, but because we know that when he expresses an opinion it is thought-provoking and encourages people to engage in deeper discussion of that important issue. Similarly, we are the corporate underwriter for Religion and Ethics News Weekly, The Open Mind and Wide Angle; each of them in their own way promotes the idea that important issues deserve good and thorough discussion. We don’t all have to agree on every issue, but if we can engage in discussion of the issues we will be a better society for it.

This kind of “open discussion” philosophy is what you and Bill Flynn put into place when you became involved in the North of Ireland peace effort, and invited the leaders of different parties to speak in New York at the Mutual of America building.
For me, one of the great privileges of working at Mutual of America was to get to know and become friends and work with Bill Flynn.  And what is incredible about Bill is that anything that excites him, he shares. And I was lucky enough that he shared Northern Ireland with me. As a result of that, I developed great friendships across all divides in the North of Ireland, and those friendships hopefully led to my playing a supportive role with Bill in the good will that was needed to bring peace to the people in the North. But the peace process is, in my opinion, still in a very early stage, and it is now very much going to depend on the development of a viable economy. The children today grow up without the same reality of violence their parents had, but they still don’t have the reality of opportunity that’s needed for them to have a great future. And they deserve to have that, they’re great people on all sides.

So when did you first visit Ireland?
I first visited in 1970. I met a couple of guys at Doherty’s Bar and Grill on Staten Island and they invited me over. I had a great time. It was an exciting time with good friends, but the truth of it is my real passion for Ireland came after being able to go there with Bill Flynn and Bill Barry and seeing the great relationships they had already developed.

Your wife Joan also has Irish roots. Where did you two meet?
After working at Mutual for a year, I managed to get a two month leave of absence and traveled around Europe.  When I got back, I was told about a pretty Irish-American girl who worked on the other side of the office. It was 1976 and that girl was Joan. After dating for several years, I finally convinced her to marry me in 1983. She still works at the company and, today, is in charge of all of our technology. She’s my best friend and partner. We just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. When we first got married there was a question about our both working at Mutual. Bill Flynn finally agreed to it because, as he says, he wasn’t sure I’d be able to find another job.

How did you become involved with Concern Worldwide?
It’s a long story involving a late night with Father Aengus Finucane [co-founder] and Siobhan Walsh [U.S. Executive Director]. They invited me to get involved and from that point, I first became a donor and then I became more informed and more passionate about the work Concern was doing in the poorest countries in the world. I was then asked to go on the board. Initially I said I didn’t have the time, but I was convinced by John Scanlon [then chairman of the U.S. board], and as soon as I said I would, he had a massive heart attack and died. I then became Concern’s chairman of the board. It was pretty much by default, but it was the best thing that has happened to me. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Rwanda, and the Congo. And each trip I’ve learned something new about the work of Concern and each trip I’ve been more impressed. With each trip my belief  is confirmed that every parent wants a better life for their child as their primary reason for existence.

From these trips and seeing such extreme poverty, do you come away with any sense of hope or are you just completely devastated by it?
I visited Niger, which is the poorest country in the world, and I saw people who are full of life and excitement, and dignity and deserving of respect, and optimism. And when you meet people like that, how can you be anything less than optimistic for them? And I’ve learned that in some of the poorest countries of the world there is incredible generosity, they will share whatever they have, and they share their spirit with you, and it’s such a powerful spirit they have. And I often think of the Irish surviving the Hunger and the powerful spirit they had. You see the same thing in Africa today. An incredible group of people, and instead of coming away depressed and despondent you come away filled with hope for the world, because this is the future of the world, and I have every confidence in their ability to overcome the adversities that they face.

The New York dinner (Dec. 5) was a record fundraiser for Concern.
This was the first year that we hit the threshold of one million dollars raised and it is because of all the people who genuinely care about Concern, and because of all of the staff under the leadership of Siobhan Walsh, and it’s because of the passion that Ed Kenney [Executive Vice President of External Affairs for Mutual of America] has for Concern and the work that he did to make sure that that room was filled beyond capacity. It was an exciting dinner. It was right that it should be the threshold dinner because we had as our honoree Elie Wiesel, who spoke about what it means to have “concern.” He spoke with the experience of a Holocaust survivor, but I think, most importantly, he spoke with the faith of a man who knows that hope is possible even in the worst of cases.

You and Elie Wiesel share something, in that neither of you like to be the center of attention, and he actually mentioned on that night that the only reason he was there was out of respect for you.
So now I should be punished for this! [Laughs].

I know that you very much prefer to stay behind the scenes.
It’s less that I would prefer to be behind the scenes and more that there are other people who are deserving of the attention. Whether it’s Concern – when you get exposed to the people of Concern you realize how insignificant your role actually is – or the peace process in Northern Ireland where my role was as a cheerleader for those that were interested in doing the right thing. The reality is that it’s the people whose lives are on the line that deserve the credit for things that have gotten done. It’s the courage and vision of a Gerry Adams. It’s the wisdom of a Rev. Ian Paisley, who after so many years realized that this was the place for him to be. It is all the people, David Ervine [Progressive Unionist Party leader] who always spoke so eloquently about the need for a better solution, and challenged not just Nationalists but Unionists and his own Loyalists to stretch themselves to see his vision of what the future could and should be.

I know that you had a great deal of respect for David Ervine.
One of the great losses, in my opinion, was the untimely death of David Ervine [Jan. 2007]. He died way too young, in his early fifties. He played such a great role. At his funeral there were 600 people in the church, 300 gathered downstairs where the pastor had set up speakers and another 3,000 lining the streets outside. And when you looked out at the church filled with friend and foe alike, you couldn’t help but be moved by the great influence that David had exercised as the leader of one of the smallest political parties on the island, but his voice was one of the loudest heard. His brother commented at the funeral that in death David had achieved what he strived for in life. And that was a reference to the fact that Gerry Adams was seated alongside representatives of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Progressive  Unionist Party, and it was the first time that Gerry had been in this part of Belfast and certainly the first time he had been at the church. It was an incredible experience. I consider one of the great riches of my life was having David for a friend. Today a foundation has been set up – the David Ervine Foundation – to promote education in East Belfast in the Loyalist areas so that young people will have opportunities other than violence to advance themselves.

You have also been involved on the education front in Ireland.
I had the privilege of chairing the Smurfit School of Business at University College, Dublin (UCD). It gave me a chance to meet an incredible group of people who, in my opinion, were responsible for the roar of the Celtic Tiger.

And just as education played such an indelible role in the development of the Irish economy, it will play the same role for the North of Ireland. And Queens University was just made a part of the Russell Group, which is the equivalent of an Ivy League school, a ranking largely attributed to the great reputation and the great quality provided and the research that is done  there. I’m convinced that Queens University will play a major part in the economic development of the North.

Can you tell me a little bit about your Irish ancestors?
I am of both Irish and Italian descent. On my father’s side my great-great-grandparents were married in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, there’s not much record beyond the marriage. And according to my grandfather’s notes his grandfather left Ireland because he was on the run from the constabulary and ended up in Hume, England where my great-grandfather was born, and a year after that he came to the States. On my mother’s side my Italian grandfather came from just outside Salerno, Italy. His name was Arturo Quaranta, and he married Peggy O’Neill, whose family came from Kesh, County Fermanagh.

Did you learn a love of politics from your father?
My father is an absolute Democrat and is right now suffering with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but he will argue politics with the best of them. I fully expect before this presidential election is over I will see him on Meet the Press. He’s quite an amazing man.

How do you see America’s role in the world?
As you travel around the world you realize what an incredible influence the United States has and the potential that we have to do great good in the most difficult of situations. The peace process in Northern Ireland was greatly supported by the government of the United States, which believed that peace was possible and made it clear that it would be supportive of any efforts for peace. In Sri Lanka we heard stories about the U.S. military that came immediately following the tsunami to rebuild schools. In Africa, in the poorest countries, what a great sense of pride it is to see the Concern workers taking the bags marked U.S. AID, and to know that the U.S. has supported efforts to keep children alive and to provide for a better existence and a better life. It’s awfully easy sometimes to see the negative sides of our world, but I think that those who have traveled and understood and heard from the people who suffer the most, recognize how powerful our country is for the good.

Thank you, Tom.

In the words of friends, colleagues, and admirers of Tom Moran:

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair: “Your contribution to peace in Northern Ireland has been exceptional. The affection and esteem in which you are held by political parties representing both traditions there, as well as the British and Irish governments, is a testament to your unstinting commitment and wise counsel over many years.”

Tom Arnold, CEO Concern Worldwide & Fr. Aengus Finucane, Honorary President, Concern Worldwide: “Tom’s commitment to help others is at the heart of his being. We have seen how much he cares for Concern and its work to help the poorest of the poor. No one more warmly encapsulates and lives the caring ‘people to people’ mantra as our dear friend Tom does in helping bridge the cruel divide between the greatly blessed in society and the neediest – at home and in remote regions of the world.” – Tom Arnold, CEO, Concern Worldwide & Fr. Aengus Finucane, Honorary President, Concern Worldwide

Gerry Adams, President, Sinn Féin: “Chomhgairdeas –

Congratulations to Tom on receiving this justly deserved Irish American of the Year award.

Tá aithne mhaith agam ar Tom agus tá dul chun cinn ollmhór déanta aige ar son an próseas síochana in Éirinn. 

I have known Tom Moran many years. His quiet, dedicated support for the Irish peace process contributed significantly to the progress and advances that have been made in recent years.

I want to thank him for that. I also want to commend and thank Tom for his exceptional work in Ireland, America and in the poor regions of the developing world, which has brought real change and hope to so many people’s lives.”

The Rt. Hon. Dr. Ian Paisley, MP MLA, First Minister: “We were delighted to hear that you have been honored as this year’s Irish American of the Year by Irish America magazine. You have earned this award with all your hard work, commitment, and dedication in helping us over the years. As our society continues with its transition we have found your advice and support invaluable. Congratulations on this well-earned achievement and we look forward to continuing our work with you in the future.”

The Rt. Hon. Shaun Woodward, MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: “Tom Moran has played and continues to play a vital role in bringing peace and prosperity to the people of Northern Ireland. His work in North America to further joint cooperation has been as significant as it has been distinguished.”

Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland: “Tom Moran’s support for effective policing in Northern Ireland and the Patten Report has been critical to helping generate support for and a greater understanding of policing in the United States. He is a good friend and I am delighted to note that he has been recognized. His contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process has been substantial.”

An Taoiseach Bernie Ahern: “Ireland is prosperous and at peace, thanks in part to the tireless effort an commitment of a few outstanding Irish Americans. Tom Moran is one of these. He is rightly known and honored for the role he has played in  Northern Ireland as a trusted and influential voice with republicans, unionists, and loyalists alike. I particularly value his advice and insight as a key member of our Ireland America Economic Advisory Board. But Tom’s reach and influence extend well beyond Ireland – particularly through his work with Concern in some of the world’s poorest countries. I am happy to have this opportunity to salute a great Irish American.” ♦

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