Thomas J. Moran, the restaurateur and philanthropist who put the TJ in ribs, proudly displayed LSU memorabilia and paved the way to franchising for Ruth’s Chris Steak House, died Monday.
He was 84 and had a life and career in which he hosted big names and average Joes, met Mother Teresa in Calcutta and helped generations of cancer victims and college students.
In the early 1970s, a business opportunity brought Moran to New Orleans, where he discovered Ruth’s Chris Steak House and met founder Ruth Fertel. In 1975, he opened the first Ruth’s Chris franchise on the outskirts of Baton Rouge in Prairieville, going on to become one of the company’s largest U.S. franchisees with about a dozen locations. In 1986, he founded TJ Ribs in Baton Rouge. He also had operated the Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurant franchise in Baton Rouge and was a founder of Ruffino’s Italian Restaurant.
In recent years, Moran sold his restaurants, keeping only a small interest in the Baton Rouge Ruth’s Chris.
That restaurant was his “baby,” said Kevin Kimball, who worked for Moran for eight years in the 1990s. Had it not been for Moran’s pushing for a Ruth’s Chris franchise, Fertel had said she likely “would have been the owner of three or four nice steakhouses in New Orleans,” instead of a large chain, said Kimball, now operations manager for the restaurant firm of Wayne Stabiler Companies.
The Moran family released news of his death through the Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center, which their patriarch had championed as a 25-year cancer survivor.
Todd Stevens, the center’s chief executive officer since 1999, said Moran raised and contributed millions of dollars for the facility over the past 16 years.
“All through that time, Mr. Moran was interested in one thing — the best possible experience for patients who were fighting cancer and children who were fighting diabetes and all kinds of people who needed assistance,” Stevens said.
Until last year, Stevens said, Moran had refused to allow his name to be placed on any part of the cancer center. He relented, though, and agreed to the Thomas J. Moran Imaging Center, on the first floor of the Heart and Vascular Tower.
“He just was a tremendous person,” Stevens said. “You could always count on him.”
“He touched so many lives in our community,” Kimball said. “Think of all the college kids who needed jobs and worked at TJ’s. It’s hard to find somebody these days who didn’t work for him at some time.”
Kimball said Moran “was a dear friend. The two of us had a very special bond. He was a mentor, teacher, friend, sometime psychiatrist.
“He had a huge heart,” Kimball added. “He went about helping people quietly. Some of them don’t even know it.”
Moran, a native of Evanston, Illinois, had through his career varied business investments that also included appliance and furniture stores, auto dealerships, construction and real estate development, advertising agencies and radio stations.
After his own battle with cancer, Moran became a champion of Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center. He also was a founding director of the Dale Brown Foundation, which promotes educational opportunities for students from underprivileged backgrounds; and served on the boards of the Pennington Family Foundation, Girls & Boys Town and Baton Rouge River Center. Moran has helped the Boy Scouts of America-Istrouma Area Council, Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, St. Jude Research Foundation and Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. He was a charter member of the Karnival Krewe de Louisiane.
Former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown, who took two of his teams to the NCAA’s Final Four over his 25-year LSU career, said Moran answered to both Tom and T.J.
“Sometimes he was Tom,” Brown said. “Sometimes he was T.J. He was always my friend.
“I loved him,” Brown said. “He was the brother I didn’t have. A faithful friend is the medicine of life,” Brown added, quoting from Ecclesiastes. “And, boy, was that true with him.”
The Dale Brown Foundation began with a donation of $50,000 raised by Moran, Brown recalled.
“He wouldn’t put his name on it, but it was (in spirit) the Dale Brown and Tom Moran Foundation,” Brown said, adding that Moran was always generous to LSU and other schools, as well as to a wide variety of charities, including that of a nun in India who is scheduled to become a Catholic saint next year.
“We went to see Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and she loved him,” Brown added. “He and Mother Teresa really hit it off.”
Brown said Moran contributed a large donation for the nun’s work with millions of impoverished people in India. She died in 1997.
“I saw him write a check for $1 million to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison,” Brown added.
“Just a few days ago, we had a great conversation,” Brown said of a visit he made to Moran’s residence.
The old coach said the two things most memorable from that conversation were “the sweetness and gentleness of him near death. The ability of us to talk and talk candidly about death. He never complained.”
Brown said he received a text message Monday from his best-known former player, NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal: “Oh noooo. Not T.J., Coach. He was a great man … please text his family my condolences.”
John Alario, president of the Louisiana Senate, recalled Moran as a friend and “a pioneer in bringing fine restaurants to Baton Rouge.”
Legislators, businesspeople and folks in search of great steaks flocked to Moran’s Ruth’s Chris franchise in the 1970s, Alario said.
“It was the right place to take people,” the senator said. “He knew all the players, and they knew him.”
Alario said he already misses his friend, “just seeing his face around. He always seemed to look at the bright side of things. You just miss good people.”
“We were longtime friends,” former Gov. Edwin Edwards said. “He had a host of friends and customers who liked him. I’m sure we’ll all miss him. I know I will.”
Former LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman, whose teams won five NCAA championships over a span of 10 years, said Moran “gave a prolific amount of money to the LSU system, not just athletics. What I remember most … he was a wonderful human being, very generous, great for LSU and great for Baton Rouge.”
Kimball, the former Moran employee, said his mentor’s business success was explained in his motto: “Make it better every day.”
Excellent customer service and constant improvement was expected at all of Moran’s companies, Kimball added.
“Yesterday was fantastic,” Kimball quoted his friend as saying. “What can we do today to make it better?”
Added Kimball: “He loved the game. He played the game hard. He played the game to win.”
About two weeks ago, Kimball said, “We were talking and laughing. He just wanted to find out what was going on in the restaurant business. He missed it.”
Kimball said one of Moran’s children, Erin Thrash, said it best: “He’s left a huge hole, but an even bigger legacy.”