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One year later, Tom Benson is far from forgotten

'All of us have people in our lives that make a difference for us'

By Herbie Teope,

New Orleans paid tribute to Tom Benson as only it could on March 15, 2018.

Within hours of Benson's passing, downtown residents took to the streets with an impromptu second-line celebration to honor one of their own. The crowd grew as the parade made its way to the Mercedes Benz Superdome before ending, fittingly enough, in front of Benson's 14-foot bronze statue.

Numerous dignitaries flocked to the city to pay respects during a three-day memorial period. His funeral provided another opportunity for a planned second-line celebration of Benson's life and contributions to the Big Easy, as thousands filled the streets of the French Quarter.

Benson died at the age of 90 a beloved figure, but the former Saints owner is far from forgotten.

One year after his death, members of Benson's tight inner circle continue to mourn a New Orleans icon, a man they affectionately referred to as "Mr. B."

"It's not over yet," Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said. "All of us have people in our lives that make a difference for us. Usually, there are a lot of those people, but he gave me this opportunity, No. 1. That in of itself is something you can't ever repay."

Loomis joined the Saints' front office in 2000 as the director of football administration before being elevated to general manager in 2002. Loomis learned early what Benson expected of those under his charge.

"Believe in decision-making, loyalty and all these other qualities I think that we pay a lot of lip service to, but were really important to him," Loomis said. "Are you good for your word? Are you willing to deliver bad news just as quickly as you are to deliver good news? What that said to me was, man, this guy has a quality that a lot of owners don't have –– that's patience and understanding."

Like Loomis, President Dennis Lauscha has been around the team for a long time. He joined the Saints in 1998 as a 28-year-old treasurer before assuming his current title in 2012.

Lauscha and Benson forged a close relationship because of their common background in accounting, educational ties to Loyola University in New Orleans and love of business.

The absence of Benson, who remained involved in daily operations, has left a hole at the team's headquarters.

"We miss the hell out of him," Lauscha said with a sigh. "We miss him coming through, walking by a door, hearing him yell every day, 'Hey, Dennis! I'm here!'"

Hard work pays off

Thomas Milton Benson Jr. was born on July 12, 1927, and his journey to self-made billionaire and owner of two professional teams began with humble roots.

He grew up in the working-class neighborhood of New Orleans' 7th Ward. His father, Tom Sr., worked as a shipping clerk before becoming a sales manager at a local department story, while his mother, Carmela, was a homemaker.

Benson, the oldest of four brothers, attended what is now Brother Martin High School, and upon graduation enrolled at Loyola to study business. Duty called, however, and Benson raised his right hand to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving on the battleship USS South Dakota in the South Pacific.

He married his first wife, Shirley Landry, while still in the Navy, and then used the GI Bill when he left the armed forces in 1947 to enroll at Loyola with a major in accounting. But Benson didn't last long, leaving school without his degree to pursue a job as a bookkeeper at a New Orleans car dealership.

From there, Benson's meteoric rise in the business world quickly took shape.

Benson eventually caught the eye of San Antonio vehicle retailer Mike Persia, who had expanded into the New Orleans market. Persia owned a Chevrolet dealership in San Antonio and asked Benson to run it with a 25 percent stake as owner.

The move to San Antonio catapulted Benson's career in the 1950s, and through determination and hard work, the young 35-year-old businessman established the Tom Benson Chevrolet Company.

"He grew up poor and didn't have a lot," Loomis said. "He had a great work ethic, which I think part of that is generational. That generation that he came from, they had to grind and work hard to get or achieve anything."

Benson returned to New Orleans in 1978 a wealthy man, and by the middle of the 1980s he was an established majority stockholder in six banks and owned 23 vehicle dealerships, which included 13 in New Orleans and 10 in San Antonio.

He purchased the Saints in 1985, and later the Pelicans in 2012.

"He was just the epitome of a good, honest businessman," Benson's widow and wife of 14 years, Gayle, said with a warm smile. "He wanted to do everything the right way, stayed on track, was focused, knew what he wanted to do, knew what the goals were, knowing what he had to do and what he needed to do to get there."

Remembering his roots

Benson overcame well-documented tragedies in his life. He buried two wives, two children, and dealt with a bitter public dispute in 2015 with Renee Benson –– his sole surviving child –– and her children over the rights to team ownership, which passed to Gayle.

Throughout the adversity, however, Benson persevered and never forgot where he came from. And over the years he and Gayle made substantial donations to the local community, including a $10 million endowment to Brother Martin.

"He just loved New Orleans," Gayle said. "We're both from New Orleans; both of us grew up here. I mean, this is our home. Neither one of us could ever dream of living anywhere else. I like to visit other cities for a few days, then I'll come back and he was the same way."

Benson also enjoyed taking on reclamation projects and helping local businesses.

He bought the dilapidated Dominion Towers and the refurnished downtown building now bears his name (Benson Towers). He and Gayle purchased a majority share in Dixie Brewing Company in 2017 and brought the brewery back to New Orleans. Benson also stepped in to purchase WVUE-Fox-8 in 2008 when the TV station gained interest from outside buyers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"If he heard a business was failing –– local –– he'd want to come in and buy it and save it," Gayle said. "Dixie Beer was a perfect example. He would just gravitate to whatever was failing because he wanted to keep it in the city."

Another area that Benson savored was his time in uniform, a period he held close to his heart throughout his accomplished life.

"He had a sincere love for the military," Lauscha said. "What he did in the Navy and supporting a lot of the stuff in Pensacola (Florida) –– there's a Naval Air Station and a museum there –– he gave a lot of money."

The Bensons also own races horses, and three of the animals are named after Benson's time in the armed forces: Navy Typist, Lone Sailor and Long Gray Line.

In many ways, Benson's stint in the Navy helped shape his approach to day-to-day activities and he found ways to apply them to the world of business.

"He was very much a chain-of-command guy," Loomis said. "He imparted his directives to us, and we in turn to the people below us. He was very much chain of command. That's a quality you get from the military, clearly."

Benson's love of the military extended beyond the glare of media cameras.

He often spent offseason vacations in the cooler temperatures of the Northeastern seaboard on his yacht, and he made it a point to visit the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York and the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

During a visit at West Point in 2005, Benson, a devout Catholic, attended a mass service at the academy's chapel and noticed it was hot. He was told there was no internal cooling system for the building, but Benson quickly helped solve the problem.

"He wrote a check to put air conditioning in the chapel at West Point," Lauscha said.

Through a USMA spokesperson, the West Point Association of Graduates declined to get into the specifics of the donation, which the Saints say was $300,000, but confirmed Benson was involved in helping the cadets stay cool during services.

"Mr. Benson was certainly a good friend of West Point," USMA spokesman Frank DeMaro said in a statement. "And he did make a substantial gift to support installation of air-conditioning in the Catholic Chapel."

Katrina and the championship feeling

Hurricane Katrina had devastating effects in New Orleans, forcing the Saints to temporarily relocate to San Antonio, where the team played three regular-season games in 2005 while the Superdome underwent repairs.

Speculation, however, quickly mounted that the Saints would leave New Orleans, and much of the outside blame fell on the team's owner.

"The negative reports that came out about him after Katrina were so untrue," Gayle said. "It was so sad to see that people would say that about him because I knew differently, I knew what we thought."

Loomis said he understood the outside uncertainty given the circumstances, but he agreed emphatically that Benson never intended to uproot the Saints.

"He was always coming back to New Orleans," Loomis said. "He loved the city too much to think otherwise."

With the team staying put, the city went about rebuilding and the Saints also began putting together a special team with the arrivals of Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.

Four years removed from Katrina, the fallout from the hurricane was quickly forgotten, as Benson's team delivered a championship. The Saints delivered a 13-3 record in the 2009 regular season en route to securing a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

The victory proved especially sweet for Benson, who joined the team in celebrating on the team bus outside the view of media attention.

"He was so happy and we were all singing 'We Are the Champions' and he was singing it, too," Lauscha said with a chuckle. "That was a special moment for him. He was just so happy for the city. He was so happy that he delivered a championship to the city."

Loomis allowed a hearty laugh when recalling the image of Benson singing along with the coaching staff and players on the bus, and glowingly remarked what it felt like watching the team's owner revel in the moment.

"What was gratifying most about the Super Bowl win was seeing Mr. B get to enjoy it, seeing the city get to enjoy it after being so loyal and so giving throughout all those years," Loomis said. "That's what was so cool, and, obviously, going through Katrina and all those hardships just doubled down on it."

Remembering the moment brought out emotions for Gayle, who briefly paused to wipe away tears as she visualized her late husband celebrating the championship with the team.

After assuming ownership of Benson's professional teams, the Saints new proprietor hopes she can deliver more in honor of her late husband.

"I'm so happy that he got to win one Super Bowl," Gayle said. "I'm hoping we can get another one for him."

"What a gift'

Benson made a mark in the NFL with the Pro Football Hall of Fame and as chairman of the league's Finance Committee.

With Gayle's support and encouragement, Benson made an $11 million donation to help the Pro Football Hall of Fame renovate then-Fawcett Stadium, which has since been renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

"When we got the call to help develop the Hall of Fame, I felt like it was very important for his legacy," Gayle said. "My whole thing the whole time I've been married to him –– I really thought he was going to live to be 100 –– I wanted to make sure his legacy would be secured."

Benson's work with the finance committee also helped spearhead the league's financial and commercial growth over the last quarter-century.

Under Benson's 25-year watch as the committee chairman, he played a large role in developing the model where teams could partner with host cities to have new stadiums built.

"That was probably the most important thing he did on the finance committee that I can recall," Loomis said. "I'm sure there were tons of other stuff behind the scenes, the principles that guide our league now, a lot of them were born on the finance committee and he was the chairman for that. The integrity of our league, the stability of our league, those were important pillars for him."

The Saints team president agreed.

"All the things that make the NFL successful today from finance and accounting standpoint, he was leading the way," Lauscha said. "I said this numerous times –– I don't think he gets the credit for that."

While a lot of Benson's behind-the-scenes work with the Finance Committee might go unnoticed to the casual fan, his devotion to the city he loved and his beloved two professional teams are well-known.

For Gayle Benson, her marriage provided numerous opportunities to absorb knowledge and apply it to how she looks to run the Benson business empire.

"My brother said to me one time early in our marriage, maybe six months or a year after we were married, he said, 'What a gift to be able to work side by side with someone like Tom Benson,'" Gayle said. "He was so bigger than life."

As for her husband's legacy, the city of New Orleans will always be grateful to the man who helped shape it for continued success.

"Everybody that I talk to, everybody that comes up to me, tells me this city would not be what it is today without Tom Benson," Gayle said. "He really made this city what it is today, and he never believed that. And, of course, you, myself, don't want to believe that. But when you stop and you look around, he did make this city what it is today."

Portions of this article appeared in the Super Bowl LIII program and are republished here with permission.

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