When he was a child in New Orleans, Tom Benson used to walk to and from school a few miles from his home in the Seventh Ward, pocketing the precious few pennies his family gave him for the streetcar because he didn’t like spending money he instead could save.
Benson was born two years before the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression, and he and his family had little while he was growing up. By the time he died Thursday at age 90, though, Benson was one of his hometown’s towering figures, a self-made billionaire, the owner of the NFL’s Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans, an owner of Kentucky Derby-caliber thoroughbreds and, in the eyes of many of his neighbors, a hero for helping New Orleans recover after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
If his final years were marred by an ugly and very public family fight over who would inherit his sports empire — and whether he was mentally fit to make that decision — then the decades before were filled with wild success as the owner of auto dealerships and banks, with hard-nosed business practices, with years of football failure followed by parasol-twirling celebrations of Saints victories. Benson supported family members and nuns, angered locals when he engaged in a public dalliance with San Antonio after Katrina struck in 2005 and then was lauded after the NFL stepped in to help convince him to stay, endured dismal seasons of the “Aints” and then reveled in the Super Bowl championship run of 2009.
A several-month span straddling 2012 and ’13 summed up Benson’s topsy-turvy place in the NFL and New Orleans pantheons. The Saints were at war with the NFL for much of 2012 after a league investigation found the existence of a bounty program. Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 campaign, plunging the Saints to a 7-9 record. But just weeks after the bounties were first revealed, Benson agreed to buy the faltering local pro basketball team. And then, just days after Payton was reinstated and the Hornets were rebranded the Pelicans, Benson played host to the first Super Bowl in New Orleans since Katrina.
“I’m 85 years old,” Benson said at the time, in an interview with The New York Times. “I’ve been in business since I was a teenager, practically; I was in grade school and I even had a paper route. I always had a job so I could have money to spend on girls.
“When we had to get out of here to go to San Antonio, we met with the mayor, and the next day we moved to the Alamodome, with offices set up in the basement. I could tell you some stories. Listen, this is all part of life. You’ve got to enjoy every day and make the best of it and go forward. That’s what we’re doing.”
Benson had plenty of early — often painful — experiences in moving forward. Just after his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Navy, and then, while on leave after boot camp, married his high school sweetheart. He began his service on a ship shortly after Japan surrendered in World War II. When his hitch was up, Benson returned to New Orleans and enrolled at Loyola University. He dropped out and made a fortuitous decision, becoming a bookkeeper for a local Chevrolet dealership. The owner became Benson’s mentor, and eventually offered him the chance to run — and hold an ownership stake in — a dealership in San Antonio. Benson came to run dozens of dealerships in San Antonio and New Orleans and he used the profits to purchase several small Southern banks.
Benson was not much of a football fan then, but in 1985, after hearing from the governor that the Saints were on the verge of being sold to people who could be interested in moving the team to Jacksonville, Florida, Benson stepped in. He did it, he later said, not out of a passion for football or the Saints, but because, with the state in the middle of a deep recession, he knew there would be economic implications for New Orleans if it lost a professional sports franchise.
At home, Benson’s stratospheric climb was often haunted by tragedy. He outlived his first two wives, all three of his younger brothers and two of his three children.
But the Saints were often a source of escape. As an owner, Benson was immediately popular because he hired Jim Mora as coach and Jim Finks as general manager — and in 1987, the Saints made it to the playoffs for the first time in their 21-year franchise history. Neither Benson’s popularity nor the team’s fortunes remained that high for long. After making the playoffs four times in a six-year span — but losing in the wild-card round each time — Mora’s results began to slip. And Benson agitated for a new home to replace the Superdome, suggesting he could move the team elsewhere if a stadium was not built. Benson’s popularity hit a nadir when he seemed to be leaning toward moving the team permanently in the wake of Katrina. Instead, the Saints were a significant part of the revival in New Orleans.
The Saints played the entire 2005 season outside of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the Superdome and left the city to rebuild, but the NFL prodded Benson to reject a flirtation with San Antonio to return to the Big Easy for the 2006 season. Sean Payton and Drew Brees joined the Saints early in 2006 and the entire team came to symbolize the rebirth of the city, with an electric Monday night victory marking the team’s return to the Superdome. Players and coaches became deeply involved in rebuilding efforts and formed an unusually deep bond with the community. And the Benson Boogie — in which the owner danced down the sideline like a participant in one of the city’s traditional second line parades — was back as the team began to win again. The Super Bowl title following the 2009 season cemented the Saints in local lore.
“This team took the hopes and the dreams of a shattered city and placed them squarely on its shoulders,” President Barack Obama said when he honored the team at the White House. “And so these guys became more than leaders in the locker room — they became leaders of an entire region.”
The off-the-field celebration waned, though, in recent years as Benson became estranged from the daughter and grandchildren who were to have inherited the team.
Benson had long supported and employed close friends and family members and gave away enormous amounts of money, including to numerous Catholic charities and an $11 million donation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, with $10 million put toward renovating the stadium there. The fight over the future of his franchises was especially bruising after he fired his daughter and grandchildren in January of 2015 and announced that he intended to make his third wife, Gayle Benson, the sole heir to the Saints and Pelicans. That set off a multifaceted legal battle in Louisiana and Texas, in which Benson’s competency was repeatedly questioned.
The legal tussling continued for much of the rest of Benson’s life, a remarkable and dramatic journey for the boy who saved his pennies, made his fortune selling automobiles and buying banks, and became a local legend by finally giving the city that spawned him something to cheer about.
Saints Owner Tom Benson, 90, passed away peacefully today at Ochsner Medical Center with his wife Gayle Marie Benson at his side https://t.co/gjAIQYKdDw pic.twitter.com/BK5aS2vj0v
New Orleans Saints (@Saints)
March 15, 2018