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Thomas Milton Benson, Jr.

Also Known As: "Tom"
Birthplace: New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, United States
Death: March 15, 2018 (90)
Jefferson, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas Milton Benson, Sr. and Carmelite Benson
Husband of Shirley Mae Benson; Grace Marie Benson and Private
Father of Robert Carter Benson; Jeanne Marie Benson and Private
Brother of Augustin C. Benson; Larry Benson and Jerome Benson

Occupation: NFL Executive
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Tom Benson

Tom Benson, a self-made billionaire who owned the N.F.L.’s Saints and the N.B.A.’s Pelicans in a four-decade reign over an often turbulent pro sports scene in his native New Orleans, died on Thursday in Jefferson, La. He was 90.

The Saints announced his death, at Ochsner Medical Center, on their website. He had been hospitalized since Feb. 16 with the flu.

Mr. Benson, who owned a string of auto dealerships in New Orleans and San Antonio and a number of Southern banks before buying the Saints in 1985, was alternately revered and reviled by local sports fans. All the while, he remained a colorful figure, who delighted in dancing on the Superdome field with a gold and black parasol — the Saints’ colors — to celebrate victories, a spectacle that drew on brass-band parades in New Orleans and became known as the Benson Boogie.

Mr. Benson had been something of a hero in New Orleans for heading the investment group that purchased the Saints for $70 million when they seemed on the brink of moving, after never having had a winning record since joining the N.F.L. in 1967.

“Even though I wasn’t a rabid football fan, I thought it would be a terrible blow to the city to lose the Saints,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1987.

The team began a revival under Mr. Benson, who hired the seasoned football men Jim Mora as head coach and Jim Finks as general manager. They reached the playoffs four times in the late 1980s and early 1990s, though they lost each time in a wild-card game.

Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005, devastating New Orleans and bringing extensive damage to the Superdome, which was converted to a shelter for thousands of people who were displaced.

Mr. Benson had already been unhappy over the Saints’ financial situation in a relatively small-market N.F.L. city that had few major corporations for sponsorships. Then Hurricane Katrina forced the Saints to move their home games out of New Orleans — they played in Baton Rouge, La.; in San Antonio; and at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. With the future of the city itself uncertain, Mr. Benson considered moving the team permanently to San Antonio, an idea that was not embraced.

And so he became a villain. But he was back in the fans’ favor when he ultimately agreed to remain in town, gaining a favorable deal with the state of Louisiana to continue playing at the Superdome, which later underwent a substantial renovation at taxpayer expense.

The Saints, led by their quarterback, Drew Brees, and coached by Sean Payton, finally won a Super Bowl championship after the 2009 season, defeating the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17.

Then came another crisis for the franchise: Bountygate, a scheme in which players were given cash payments to injure opposing players, forcing them out of the game. An N.F.L. inquiry determined in March 2012 that at least one former assistant coach was involved in the arrangement, which began in 2009. The league said that Mr. Benson had directed the team’s general manager, Mickey Loomis, to end the scheme, but “the evidence showed that Mr. Loomis did not carry out Mr. Benson’s directions.”

Mr. Payton was banned for the 2012 season, and the players found to be involved were fined. Mr. Benson apologized to the league. But he remained upbeat.

“I’m 85 years old; I’ve been in business since I was a teenager practically; I was in grade school and I even had a paper route,” he told The New York Times after Mr. Payton was reinstated in January 2013. “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.”

“Listen, this is all part of life,” he said. “You’ve got to enjoy every day and make the best of it and go forward. That’s what we’re doing.”

There was turmoil anew in January 2015, when Mr. Benson fired his estranged daughter from his first marriage, Renee Benson LeBlanc, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, from executive positions with the Saints and Pelicans and said he no longer wanted them to inherit shares in the teams, which they had been given through a family trust. He planned to provide them instead with compensation for the shares based on the teams’ valuation. He said he intended to leave the teams to his third wife, Gayle, whom he had married in 2004.

Mr. Benson’s daughter, who had been the Saints’ and Pelicans’ executive vice president, and the two grandchildren, who had lesser executive roles, filed a lawsuit in a Louisiana court, seeking to invalidate the firings on the grounds that Mr. Benson was mentally impaired and had been unduly influenced by his wife. They also sued in federal court over Mr. Benson’s attempt to alter the terms of the trust.

A judge hearing the state case upheld the firings, acting on findings by psychiatrists who found that Mr. Benson was mentally capable though sometimes forgetful.

Mr. Benson and his once presumptive heirs reached an undisclosed financial settlement over the trust in February 2017. His wife remained the future owner of his teams.

Mr. Benson extended his sports ownership to pro basketball in 2012 when he reached an agreement to buy the New Orleans Hornets for a payment of $338 million to the N.B.A., which had taken over the team. He later renamed them the Pelicans, for Louisiana’s state bird, and the franchise stabilized.

Forbes magazine estimated the net worth for Mr. Benson and his family at $2.8 billion in 2017 and said he was the richest person in Louisiana. It valued his Saints at $2 billion and the Pelicans at $750 million.

Mr. Benson had several stints as chairman of the N.F.L. owners’ finance committee. He also invested in real estate; he bought an office building next to what is now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and renamed it the Benson Tower.

Thomas Milton Benson Jr. was born on July 12, 1927, to Thomas and Carmelite Benson. After serving in the Navy, he studied accounting at Loyola University in New Orleans, then became a salesman at a Chevrolet dealership there.

He later moved to San Antonio to help turn around a troubled dealership and eventually owned many dealerships in the two cities. He also purchased banks, then merged them into Benson Financial, a holding company, in 1994. He sold it to the Minneapolis-based Norwest Corporation in 1996.

Mr. Benson and his third wife, the former Gayle Marie LaJaunie Bird, founded GMB Racing, a thoroughbred breeding farm in Paris, Ky., named for her, in 2014. Their colts Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready, both named for Mr. Benson, finished eighth and 12th in the 2016 Kentucky Derby.

Mr. Benson pledged $11 million to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2014, most of it going for the expansion of its stadium, which is now named for him. He joined with his wife in making extensive donations to educational institutions and charitable endeavors, among them many Roman Catholic entities. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI presented Mr. Benson and his wife with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal for outstanding service to the church and the pontiff, the highest papal award granted to laypeople.

In addition to his wife and his daughter Renee — one of three children from his first marriage, to Shirley Landry, who died in 1980 — Mr. Benson’s survivors include three grandchildren. His son, Robert, and his daughter Jeanne Marie, both from his first marriage, died before him, as did his brothers, Larry, Jerome and A. C. He also had four stepchildren, Don, Ricky and Susan Walker, and Mimi Peake, from his marriage to his second wife, the former Grace Trudeau, who died in 2003.

When Mr. Benson’s daughter and her children sued him in 2015, he issued a statement stating that “their allegations regarding my mental health are completely meritless and their allegations against my wife equally unfounded,” and insisted he would not forsake his ownership duties even though he was in his late 80s.

As he put it: “There is a small sign that sits on my desk and simply states, ‘Tough times never last; but tough people do.’ Make no mistake, I will be back in the office tomorrow morning working hard, as I do every day.”

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Tom Benson's Timeline

July 12, 1927
New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, United States
September 1, 1948
Louisiana, United States
March 15, 2018
Age 90
Jefferson, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, United States