The first phase of public viewing for New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, who died March 15, took place Wednesday at Notre Dame Seminary Chapel. Another public visitation will be held Thursday from 8 a.m. through 1 p.m. at Notre Dame, and the private funeral is to be held at St. Louis Cathedral on Friday from noon until 1 p.m.
On Wednesday, the viewing drew hundreds of visitors, along with the joyful remembrance of Benson's life and the confirmation that it was a life well-lived.
"Tom was a good friend to me, and to many people," Archbishop Gregory Aymond said. "We commit him to the Lord. We know that this is not our final home, and so we commit him to the Lord and thank God for his life, for his faith and for his incredible generosity.
"For the city, he was a New Orleanian. He was not born here, (but) he truly became a New Orleanian. He was proud of the city and he wanted the city to prosper, he wanted the city to be known, and that's why he brought the Saints back after (Hurricane) Katrina, was really to give life to the city.
"All of his other enterprises, I would say to him, 'Why are you getting into this? Why Dixie Beer? Why Benson Towers?' And he said, 'I want to build up New Orleans and I'll do anything I can to build up New Orleans.' "
There's little debate that Benson's hands and imprint are on many foundational pieces of the city. Credited with purchasing the NFL and NBA franchises at a time when each possibly could have been bought by outside interests and relocated, Benson also struck a chord as one of the most charitable people in the city, with myriad, substantial contributions being presented to, among others, Brother Martin High School, Tulane University, Loyola University, Oschner Medical Center and Team Gleason (founded by former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who is battling ALS).
That, along with the giving of his time and wisdom, were among traits that were reflected upon Wednesday.
"He loved New Orleans so much, and it's an appropriate start to this weekend," Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis said.
"It's just emotional. When you owe somebody so much, all those memories come rushing to you, all the good times. It was just emotional, for all of us, really."
"It's a sad day," Saints President Dennis Lauscha said. "It's a very sad day for everyone in the organization, everyone in the city. Truly touched by the folks that have come through. They've been outstanding. So many Saints fans, so many Pelican fans and really, so many fans of New Orleans, to be honest with you.
"That's what everyone's really saying, how much Mr. Benson gave back to New Orleans and how much he meant to everyone in New Orleans. It's really touching. He did some very amazing things, he's a great man, had a great life, wonderful life. Truly, laid a foundation and led us down a path that we can all continue down. It's been an honor knowing him and working with him."
Loomis and Lauscha each reminisced on his relationship with Benson, and the trust and support that evolved in the relationship.
"What rushes to me are the private moments, on the back of the boat at times with him having a glass of wine, or at dinner," Loomis said. "Or in his office, he'd tell a story and every story ended up with a little gem that you could take away, whether it was related to our work or it related to our life. He had a lot of great experiences and he had a lot of adversity that he had to overcome, and he was very generous about sharing his experience and with that comes the wisdom.
"He was a New Orleanian through and through. He was so in love with the city and in love with the things that New Orleans and Louisiana have to offer. Loyalty and integrity, and the little details – just people parking in the right spot at the office at times – he paid attention to the details. All these different things come to mind when you think about Mr. B. Missing that is what makes us all sad.
"The lives of me and my entire family are changed forever. He believed in me, and he believed in me at times when things weren't going well. He always was encouraging when things weren't going well for me personally, and then he'd always have a good way of putting a foot to my rear when things were going well and saying, hey, we're not settling for this. I couldn't even begin to describe how much this man has meant to myself, my family and really, future generations of my family."
Lauscha said he was hired by Benson as a 28-year-old auditor, who Benson took a flier on and was allowed to be the team's chief financial officer.
"It's been tough, it's been a lot of memories," Lauscha said. "I've worked for him and I've been at his side virtually every day for the last 20 years. He meant so much to me. He was a mentor, friend, a colleague, advisor and my boss, as well. He was an outstanding man.
"Unfortunately, a lot of people never get to see a side of him that I got to see, which was he was so giving, and loving, and caring for the city. Usually, regardless of what the big question was, the answer was always rooted in, 'What does it mean for the city and the fans and the franchise?' "
Among those who came to pay respect was Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson, a Saints' second-round draft pick in 1981 who spent the first 13 years of his career with New Orleans. Jackson was on the roster when Benson bought the Saints in 1985.
"He did a lot for the city," Jackson said. "He kept the Saints here. They might have left like some of the other teams did.
"He meant a whole lot to me. I played here with him and he took care of me. Anything I asked him for, he gave to me.
"He's No. 1, because if you look at the Saints, they're No. 1. So you've got to put him as the No. 1 savior for this city. You've got the Pelicans. He did a whole lot. He's got the beer, the Cadillac dealership, the Mercedes dealership. He's No. 1 in this city, in this state, really, for keeping Louisiana going."
The recollection of Benson, too, will keep going.
"I think his legacy is that of a man of faith, a man who worked very, very hard," Aymond said. "He was born poor, could not afford to go to a Catholic school, and someone gave him a scholarship. His legacy is that he gave of himself 100 percent to everything that he did, and he also did it in a spirit of generosity, and also a spirit of sincerity.
"He leaves us with a legacy of a man committed, dedicated, and built up the city in a way that few people could do."
Mrs. Gayle Benson, Archbishop Aymond, Saints and Pelicans executives, members of the clergy and fans gathered to pay their final respects to owner Tom Benson at the Notre Dame Seminary on Wednesday, March 21, 2018.