Whenever Jesuit Father James Carter, the former president of Loyola University New Orleans, would have a conversation with New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, it had nothing to do with Benson’s far-flung, professional sports empire.
The saga often is told of a St. Roch kid who grew up in a working-class family that could not afford the $5 a month tuition to send him to St. Aloysius High School in the 1940s – but who got in anyway on the good graces of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart – and then used his smarts and savvy in selling automobiles and buying banks and pro sports franchises to become one of the richest men in America.
Instead of that only-in-America story, they would talk about their mutual friend – Gregory Choppin, St. Aloysius Class of 1944, who went on to Loyola to study physics and chemistry and later, as one of the country’s premier nuclear chemists, co-discovered the element Mendelevium, Atomic No. 101.
“It lived for a millionth of a second, and he had to identify its chemical properties,” Father Carter said.
Father Carter, who grew up in New York, attended St. Stanislaus, a Sacred Heart Brothers’ school in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and as a student of physics himself, he became close classmates with Choppin at Loyola, just as Benson had become friends with Choppin in math class at St. Aloysius.
Years later, when Benson owned the Saints, the three buddies of the same generation watched NFL games from Benson’s skybox suite in the Superdome, reminiscing about their mutual backgrounds: the Great Depression, the Sacred Heart Brothers, WWII, the allure of numbers and their Catholic faith.
Many people review the daily exploits of people with immense wealth and prominence and wish they could exchange places. That notion often is a fairy tale overlooking the reality of private wounds pouring out publicly on reality TV.
For Tom Benson, no decimal points in a bank account, no debits or credits, could paper over the heartache of losing in death two wives and two children.
“It was incredibly painful,” Father Carter said. “He was not a man to cry in public. I’m sure the Brothers had a tremendous influence on him, and he had a very deep faith.”
“He would talk about the pain a lot and continue to make sense of that,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said. “That’s where his faith came in. Ultimately, he believed that God was with him in the sorrowful times.”
Then, in the final three years of his life, a tense family squabble played out on a public stage, resulting in estrangement from his only surviving daughter and two of his grandchildren. Archbishop Aymond, who celebrated Benson’s funeral Mass on March 23 at St. Louis Cathedral, acknowledged the pain of a life lived in a glass house.
“We all have some family tensions, and when they become public, it becomes even more uncomfortable,” Archbishop Aymond said. “It certainly was a very painful time for him.”
Those who experienced the loss of Katrina remember those uncertain times when New Orleans’ future seemed to hang in the balance. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who later went to jail for bank fraud, proclaimed in September 2005 that rebuilding New Orleans “doesn’t make any sense to me.”
With the New Orleans diaspora unsure if it would or could return from exile to rebuild, the future of the Saints in New Orleans looked bleak. But once Benson made the final decision to return and the state fast-tracked renovations to the Superdome, the Saints unquestionably wrote the resurrection story.
“Judge people by what they do,” said Jesuit Father Kevin Wildes, the current president of Loyola. “That’s my view of moral theology. I call it American pragmatism. Show me what you do, not just your rhetoric.”
Father Carter was in the Benson suite for the September 2006 “Domecoming” against the Atlanta Falcons. The Superdome roof somehow remained attached despite the explosion caused by Steve Gleason’s blocked punt against the Atlanta Falcons.
“It had a liturgical effect, it really did,” Father Carter said. “It was like going to church with your fellow parishioners. That really brought people together.”
John Devlin, president of Brother Martin High School, said Benson’s alma mater is forever indebted to the man whose family was given a tuition break at St. Aloysius by the Sacred Heart Brothers in 1940. In 2013, Benson pledged $10 million over 10 years to make sure Brother Martin’s facilities remain on the cutting edge.
Since Katrina, Benson also made sizable bequests to Loyola, Notre Dame Seminary, the Academy of the Sacred Heart, St. Mary’s Dominican High School and Stuart Hall. Many other philanthropic endeavors have gone unreported.
“It was absolutely linked to his being given the opportunity to go to St. Aloysius for practically nothing,” Devlin said. “The last time he was here, he joked with the seniors about how much their monthly tuition was compared to what his monthly tuition was. That was his way of saying, ‘You guys, appreciate what your parents are doing for you.’”
When Archbishop Philip Hannan, another close friend, suffered a stroke, Benson and several other friends “basically took the lead in paying for those medical expenses,” said J.T. Hannan, Archbishop Hannan’s nephew.
“Uncle Phil always admired the fact that Mr. Benson brought himself out of fairly hardscrabble roots and was a self-made man,” Hannan said. “They were both veterans and the same age group. They were two of the most powerful people in the city. They walked among presidents. They genuinely liked each other.”
Archbishop Hannan was another frequent patron in Benson’s game-day suite. He would celebrate Mass at St. Louis Cathedral and then ask for speed-limit absolution as he raced across town to get to the game.
“There was always a roving cadre of nuns in the suite,” J.T. Hannan said, laughing.
Benson approached Archbishop Hannan one time in the skybox and asked if he was saying the rosary correctly.
In the last few months, Archbishop Aymond said, Benson recognized his closeness to death.
“His faith was manifested publicly in Masses before Saints games and in him going to church,” Archbishop Aymond said. “But there was the more private side. When he would be with me, there were conversations about God, about our relationship with God and about his desire to do God’s will and to be a real disciple.”
Benson’s wealth was not a chemical element that buffered him from suffering. “To use a very overused phrase, he was from that ‘Greatest Generation,’” Father Wildes said. “He just soldiered on.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.