NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist Tom Benson has died from complications from the flu on Thursday. He was 90 years old.
Benson rejoiced when the Saints won Super Bowl 44, arguably one of the sweetest moments of his life. The victory brought bragging rights to the team he had owned for almost a quarter of a century. It was a victory for the city he loved so much. When he was asked to put the feeling into words - what it meant for him and the city of New Orleans - he mixed words with emotion.
"Well, I tell ya, not only the city but this whole state of Louisiana. By the way, New Orleans is back, and we've shown the whole world it's back! It's back!" he said hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Tom Benson was born on July 12, 1927, the same year as the great flood of Louisiana before the Great Depression. His parents, Tom Benson Sr. and Carmen Benson, had four sons. They raised the boys in the St. Roch neighborhood, their lives rooted in the Catholic Church as parishioners at Our Lady Star of the Sea.
Benson graduated from St. Aloysius in 1945, enlisted in the Navy before his 18th birthday, and married his high school sweetheart, Shirley Landry. He earned his accounting degree from Loyola in 1948, and the ambitious Benson made a big impression selling cars after school at Cathy Chevrolet. The owner sent Benson to San Antonio in 1956 to help turn around a troubled dealership, and he was granted a 25 percent interest in that enterprise. He bought his first dealership six years later, the beginning of an auto empire that led to the ownership of dozens of dealerships and interests in several banks over the decades.
He and Shirley adopted a boy and two girls: Robert, Renee and Tootsie. Shirley died in 1980. Two years later, Benson married Grace Marie Trudeau. With her by his side, they branched out into a world of endless possibilities.
Benson bought the New Orleans Saints from Houston oil heir John Mecom in 1985 for a reported $70 million, and kept out-of-state buyers at bay. It was a welcome moved for the state as it struggled in a recession with oil prices at rock bottom. As an owner, Benson was filled with enthusiasm. His "Benson boogie" on the sidelines was an anticipated treat for fans after a Saints win. Benson changed coaches over the years from Jim Mora, to Mike Ditka, to Jim Haslett, striving for an ever-elusive Super Bowl ring.
Losses on the field were nothing compared to the tycoon's personal losses. in 1986, Benson's son Robert died of cancer, and in April of 1991 his daughter Tootsie committed suicide. His wife, Grace, died of Parkinson's disease in 2003. In October of 2004, he married Gail Byrd, whom he had met at church a few months before. Shortly thereafter, the tide turned on his life once again.
Like the flood of 1927, the year he was born, Hurricane Katrina and breached levees brought desperation and catastrophic flooding. Katrina claimed thousands of lives and homes. The Superdome was severely damaged by wind, water and tens of thousands of evacuees seeking shelter with nowhere to go.
The Saints relocated to San Antonio temporarily, and fans worried it was a permanent move. But Benson made a lucrative agreement with the state to keep the Saints here.
In 2006, Benson hired Saints Coach Sean Payton and Quarterback Drew Brees, investing his heart, soul and millions into the team and into the city of New Orleans. In July of 2008, Benson's Louisiana Media Company purchased WVUE TV. In September of 2009, Benson and his wife purchased a piece of the New Orleans skyline - Benson Tower, overlooking the Superdome. The stage was set for something big the city would never forget.
In February 2010, the Saints won the Super Bowl, a gift that took him 25 years to bring to New Orleans. The Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District carved out a place for celebration called Champion Square next to Benson Tower that leads to the Superdome. The gift of a winning team for the city was lagniappe to the gifts Benson and his wife gave to their beloved Catholic Church and the New Orleans area.
In 2010 the Bensons gave $8 million to fund the Loyola Jesuit Center. In 2012, the Bensons donated $10 million to Brother Martin, formerly his alma mater St. Aloysius, and more than $7 million to Tulane's Yulman Stadium. The field is named Benson Field. A $5 million donation to Ochsner for the Tom and Gail Benson Cancer Center was followed by another $20 million. The Saints owner pledged $11 million in donations to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the largest gift in the hall's 51-year history. Fawcett Stadium, which sits next to the Hall of Fame, is now Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
The couple has given millions to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, from a $7 million seminary renovation to countless donations to the Pace Center to care for the elderly.
In 2011, Tom and Gayle met Pope Benedict, a high point for the couple after a life centered on God and giving.
"When he looked at my (Super Bowl) ring, he seemed fascinated," Benson said.
That same year the Bensons were instrumental in securing the $100 million naming rights deal for the Super Dome with Mercedes Benz. Then the slam dunk.
"Tom Benson will be the new owner of the New Orleans Hornets," former NBA Commissioner David Stern said on April 13 of 2012.
Benson bought the Hornets for $338 million and changed the name to the Pelicans.
Tom Benson's stamp is on every corner of New Orleans, and a statue of him will always overlook Champions Square, welcoming visitors to the beloved Superdome.
His legacy is etched into the fabric of New Orleans as the city's greatest benefactor.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued the following statement on Mr. Benson's passing: