By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
On the anniversary of her husband’s death, New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Gayle Benson visited Second Harvest Food Bank March 15 to announce a $3.5 million donation from the Gayle and Tom Benson Charitable Foundation – the largest in the food bank’s 37-year history – earmarked for badly needed infrastructure repairs to the organization’s massive warehouse.
Gayle Benson said her thoughts were focused on her husband, who bought the Saints in 1985 and died on March 15, 2018, at the age of 90. Her husband had a history of philanthropic giving for the good of the community, she said.
“He’s up there smiling down on all of us,” she said before making the announcement to the food bank, which is a ministry of the Archdiocese of New Orleans started in 1982 by former Archbishop Philip M. Hannan.
The money will be invested in a new roof and climate control for the 200,000-foot, Elmwood Park warehouse, expanded office space and an upgraded food-donation facility.
“I’m truly humbled to be standing here today,” Gayle Benson said. “For more than 30 years, we have seen the incredible acts of kindness which Second Harvest has done in our community. We have all seen, through the years, that hunger and disaster do not have an offseason in our community. The staff and volunteers at Second Harvest do so much for so many in our community, as they place every dollar they receive toward food to feed the less fortunate. I’m happy to help play a small part in helping Second Harvest build and maintain the infrastructure they need to do their critical work in feeding the more vulnerable people in our community.”
Benson said she hoped her donation would spur others to follow suit in making an investment in “one of our community’s most important social service non-profits.”
A scriptural imperative
In thanking Benson, Archbishop Aymond said it was “very important that the work (of Second Harvest) continues. “We see it as a ministry, and we’re very proud and grateful that we can participate in this ministry.”
“What we do at Second Harvest is really the work of the Lord,” the archbishop said. “To be able to feed people is what all of us do as the people of God, no matter what religion or denomination we belong to. We’re united in that. In the Jewish scriptures, God consistently says through the prophets, ‘Go and find those who are in need. Feed the hungry.’ And Jesus says, ‘When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. When you gave to your brother or sister, you gave to me.’ That summarizes in so many ways what Second Harvest is all about.”
Excitement all around
Second Harvest president and CEO Natalie Jayroe described it as “one of the most exciting days in our history.”
“Since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we have doubled the number of meals we have provided annually, but we need to do so much more,” she said. “More than 70 million meals are missing from family tables in south Louisiana every year.”
The donation was the latest in large philanthropic gifts from the Gayle and Ton Benson Charitable Foundation. Last month, the foundation announced a $5 million gift to Jesuit High School for its capital campaign that will include a new administrative wing, HVAC upgrades to the gymnasium and an elevated student walkway connecting the school with the gymnasium on Banks Street.
Brothers of the Sacred Heart
Tom Benson’s philanthropy got its impetus when he attended St. Aloysius High School in the early 1940s. The Brothers of the Sacred Heart, knowing the Benson family could not afford sending several sons to the school, told Benson’s father to pay whatever tuition he could afford.
The Brothers’ benevolence indelibly stamped Benson as he climbed the corporate ladder. He may have been relentlessly driven in the business world, but he always felt compelled to give back, especially after Hurricane Katrina when the city of New Orleans was dragging itself from the primordial ooze.
The $10 million he pledged in 2012 to Brother Martin High School – the Sacred Heart school that succeeded St. Aloysius – was just a fraction of his impressive largesse.
“I feel like we need to help people, and he always believed like I did,” Gayle said. “The more you have, the more you’re expected to give.”
In 2007, the Bensons established the Gayle and Tom Benson Charitable Foundation, which has distributed more than $130 million to charitable causes.
Not surprisingly, because his own life was touched by the gift of Catholic education, much of Benson’s philanthropy has targeted Catholic schools and other Catholic causes. When he established the Benson Free Enterprise Resource Library at Brother Martin in 1984 in honor of his parents, he said it was “the responsibility of successful business people to return something back to the community for the use of others.”
“The education of kids is our future,” Gayle said. “If we don’t educate them, we don’t have a future. He believed in taking care of kids. He enjoyed being around kids.”
Other charitable gifts
Other examples of his giving include the Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center at Ochsner ($25 million); the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio ($11 million, plus a three-story house for use as an Oblate residence); Brother Martin High School capital improvement fund/building endowment ($10 million); Pro Football Hall of Fame Tom Benson Stadium ($10 million); Notre Dame Seminary renovations ($9 million);
The Tom Benson Jesuit Center at Loyola University New Orleans ($8 million); the Archdiocese of New Orleans (more than $7 million); Gayle and Tom Benson Field at Tulane University ($7.5 million); Team Gleason House ($5 million); St. Mary’s Dominican High School STREAM Building ($5 million); Gayle and Tom Benson Field at Incarnate Word College in San Antonio ($5 million); the Dominican Sisters of Nashville ($5 million);
Bob Benson Stadium at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio ($4 million, in honor of his late son); Xavier University of Louisiana chapel sanctuary ($1.5 million, the last donation he approved before his death); the Shirley Landry Benson PACE Center for seniors ( $1.2 million); the Southern Dominican Province seminary ($1 million); the Jesuits of New Orleans Province ($1 million); St. Michael’s Special School ($500,000); Audubon Institute’s Benson Celebration of Light ($500,000);
The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation’s New Canal Lighthouse ($400,000); WYES ($250,000); the National Aviation Museum Foundation in Pensacola ($200,000); the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans ($150,000); the St. Augustine High School Foundation ($100,000); the Sisters of the Holy Family ($100,000); the New Orleans Opera ($100,000) and Desire Street Ministries’ multipurpose building ($100,000).
Benson also was one of several NFL owners to donate a total of $1 million toward the construction of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Benson, Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams, New York Giants owner Wellington Mara and Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson had ties to the Navy, and Ed McCaskey of the Chicago Bears was a platoon leader in the Third Army who served in France.
“All the NFL owners – those who served as well as those who were too young to serve – recognize the tremendous contributions of WWII veterans,” Benson said on Nov. 9, 2000, two days before Veterans Day. “The memorial will be a fitting tribute to the men and women who were there when their country needed them. People everywhere depend on us to stabilize the world.”
Benson also was a contributor to the University of New Orleans, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the United Way and the YMCA. Hundreds of other significant donations have gone unrecorded.
Close to the Oblates
Benson’s affinity for the Oblates stemmed from his long history in San Antonio as well as the Oblates’ presence in New Orleans at St. Louis Cathedral and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
“I don’t want us to become a nation without God,” Benson said in 2008 after pledging millions to the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, the largest single gift to any Catholic seminary in the U.S. “I think this would be a terrible country. The Oblates made me feel very good about the fact that God put me here for a purpose. I want everybody after me to have the opportunity I had to be able to associate with good priests.”
Greg Bensel, who in 1996 became head of a communications for the Saints, said he constantly tried to persuade Benson to make his charitable contributions more widely known but got push-back from his boss.
Never wanted to toot horn
“I would say he gave just as much back then (before Katrina) as he did later,” Bensel said. “I remember numerous times going into his office, and I would only know that he had given money because I might have heard it on the street or I may have talked to someone or his secretary may have had some paperwork of a check that he had written – and it was in the millions of dollars, the multimillions of dollars, that he would give to different things. But always quietly, anonymously.
“Back in the day, Mr. Benson used to do stuff on a handshake or write something on napkin. ‘You need $10 million, $5 million?’ Boom, boom, boom. He’d do it for somebody in need. And I’d go in and tell him, ‘You give endless money to people, and people are always taking shots at you. You know, this is great P.R. He didn’t know P.R. from anything. He would say, ‘I don’t want any media coverage on that. I don’t want it.’ For 10 years, I begged him; for 12 years, I begged him. Finally, Mrs. Benson, sat him down and said, ‘Let me tell you something. You’ve given all this money away, and rightfully so. It’s your decision, and we support it and love it. But people need to know what you’ve done.’ He fought it but finally gave in.”
Gayle said when she first met Benson, he was already contributing money to transform St. Cecilia Church in the Upper 9th Ward into the Shirley Landry Benson PACE Center, which provides day care and health monitoring to low-income seniors.
At his Funeral Mass on March 23, 2018, Archbishop Aymond acknowledged that Benson had “many possessions, awards and accolades, but none of that goes with him. He takes with him only two things after a journey of 90 years – his hunger for God, that he may see God face to face, and a heart filled with love.
“He had a generosity toward others – to the needy, the forgotten and the mission of the church. He kept giving of himself and what he had. Yes, he was rich – rich in faith, rich in love.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.