Renee Benson sat alone at a table in a Texas courtroom, head bowed.
Her attorneys had gone into a closed-door meeting with the judge to try to sort out the dispute between her and her father. And they’d left her in a room full of reporters whose requests for interviews she’d spent a day and a half politely but repeatedly declining.
“I can’t. I’m sorry,” she responded to the latest request, looking up briefly from her hands.
They were stuffed wrist-deep inside the purse on her lap. She held a delicate chain in one of them, her thumb and index finger resting on a small purple orb — a rosary bead.
Her dad, by numerous accounts, is a devout Catholic. She grew up wanting to be just like him.
“When I was very little, I can remember being on his arm and dancing around, and he’d wiggle and jiggle me and throw me up in the air. And when I got too big to fit in his arms, I would stand on his shoes and we’d dance,” she told a judge this week. “We were a very happy family for the majority of the time.”
That was then. Now, Renee Benson says, she hasn’t seen her father — Louisiana’s richest man, a self-made billionaire and the owner of the state’s two most prominent professional sports teams — in two months.
Tom Benson abruptly cut his only living child out of his life in an email sent two days after Christmas. It’s not something she believes he would have done on his own, she has said in court filings asking that he be evaluated by a geriatric psychiatrist. He’s being coerced — likely by his wife of a decade — and has apparently come undone, she insists.
Tom Benson’s longtime lawyer, Stanley Rosenberg, said last week that he actually penned the letter but that he did so only at Benson’s request and using the words he suggested.
An attorney for her father said Renee Benson’s jealousy is behind the rift. In his business and in his life, the attorney said, Tom Benson has replaced Renee Benson with his wife Gayle, and after a lifetime of being his top choice, Renee can’t cope with being something else.
“You resent the fact, don’t you, that she has become the focus of your father’s attention, rather than you?” Benson’s attorney Phillip Wittmann asked at a court hearing last week. “It would not be fair to say that your father’s attention is now focused on his wife and not on yourself?”
A close family
Tom Benson and his first wife, Shirley, adopted a 5- or 6-month-old Renee Benson from the St. Vincent de Paul orphanage in New Orleans almost six decades ago.
The couple could not have children of their own.
Renee was their middle child. A son, Robert Carter, was eight years older, and a daughter, Jeanne Marie, called “Tootsie,” was four years younger.
The close family traveled frequently. Every year, they took a trip to either the East or West Coast — usually with a cousin or two in tow — for automobile dealers’ conferences. Tom Benson owned several dealerships in their hometown, San Antonio.
Summers were spent on their ranch in Johnson City — “Home Town of Lyndon B. Johnson” reads the sign at the city limit — in Texas hill country about an hour north of San Antonio.
Robert Carter and Jeanne Marie spent their days riding the family’s horses. Renee, after being stepped on once, wasn’t much of a fan of horses.
“So he taught me how to drive at 8 years old, a standard Jeep, a Willys Jeep,” she said. “Off we’d go, driving around the ranch.”
When Shirley Benson died in 1980, less than a year after her failing hearing and eyesight were diagnosed as lupus, Tom Benson was crushed, his elder daughter said.
“He would call me every morning at 7 o’clock for like two, three months, ’cause I guess he woke up and there was nobody home,” she said.
Robert died a little more than five years later, at 37. Tootsie followed about a half-decade after that. She was 31.
For a time, it was just Tom and Renee.
‘A quiet, humble person’
Renee Benson lives in a modest, one-story home with a stone façade, green wood trim and a tidy front yard, one town over from the old family ranch, which the Bensons now rent out to dove and deer hunters.
Her husband, John Benham II, is a commercial pilot for American Airlines. She has been running the company that manages Tom Benson’s automobile dealerships.
In some ways, it seems hard to believe that Renee Benson really is the daughter of a billionaire and someone who stood, until recently, to inherit a powerful role in the world of American professional sports.
Nothing in the way that she carries herself — the naturally graying hair, the lack of conspicuous cosmetics — calls to mind the slick production of an NFL Sunday or the courtside glamour of an NBA game.
Nothing in her personal life seems to, either. She’s been singing with the Blanco County Community Choir for about 30 years, said Vickie Pautz, who joined the choir around the same time.
“She’s a very quiet, humble person,” Pautz said. “She’s definitely not an assertive person. She’s very reserved.”
But her presence looms large in Blanco, a town of 1,739 people at last count, where her company, Uptown Blanco, purchased and renovated a city block’s worth of vacant buildings.
There’s the Uptown Blanco textile studio and fabric shop, the restaurant, the art center and the concert hall, where musicians from as far away as the Netherlands have played. Uptown Blanco recently demolished the old theater and has plans to renovate that, too.
“She has really brought a shot in the arm to Blanco,” resident Diane Turner said. “Just the appearance of that side of the street is better than it was before.”
Despite her fame in Blanco, Renee Benson was little known in New Orleans — outside some small circles — until last month.
That’s when Tom Benson made the startling announcement that he was cutting Renee and her daughter Rita LeBlanc and son Ryan LeBlanc — children from her first marriage — out of his life and the future of his business empire. He said his third wife, Gayle, with whom the heirs have had a troubled relationship, would succeed him.
It had been widely believed until then that Rita was being groomed for the company’s top job. Tom Benson’s succession plan had included Renee Benson as the majority owner of the teams at 60 percent, with her children splitting the other 40 percent.
Gayle now stands to inherit it all.
“I think she’s intelligent. She can put on stockings standing straight up,” Renee said of Gayle last week. “There are things I admire about her, but she has kept a lot of people away from my dad, including myself, and that bothers me.”
Renee Benson has responded to Tom Benson’s decision by calling for his “civil death,” said Wittmann, his attorney.
In court filings in New Orleans and San Antonio, Renee Benson has claimed that her father’s mental capacity has diminished and he shouldn’t be allowed to make business decisions for himself anymore. If an evaluation by a psychiatrist proves that to be true, she has asked that she be put in charge of his empire.
Tom Benson has fired back in court filings and brief television appearances, saying he’s perfectly fine. And his attorneys made the case in Bexar County Probate Court last week that he made the reasoned decision to cut Renee, Rita and Ryan out of his life and business because they have been rude to his wife and just plain bad at business. Wittmann said Renee Benson’s real estate investments in Blanco are a money pit.
A San Antonio judge, after hearing those arguments in court last week, temporarily replaced Tom Benson as steward of a trust created for Renee Benson’s benefit. He said the move isn’t a determination of Tom Benson’s mental fitness, something that will be left for a New Orleans court to sort out.
Seeking some ‘quality time’
It wasn’t long ago that Tom Benson thought Renee was a fitting inheritor of his throne.
Years before she got sick, Shirley and Tom Benson picked Renee over her siblings to be the successor trustee on their wills.
Shirley Benson thought she would be the most fair of the children.
“My father said I had the best understanding of the finances,” Renee Benson said.
Years later, when Tom Benson was looking to downsize his automobile businesses, he leaned on Renee. Together, they set up a company called Renson to manage the five dealerships he would keep.
He also poured about $20 million, via a trust he controls for Renee’s benefit, into Uptown Blanco, the real estate company.
She sat on the boards of the Saints and Pelicans. And, until recently, she had Tom Benson’s power of attorney.
Now he is refusing, through others, to see her.
“I would like to visit with my dad today if possible,” she wrote to Saints President Dennis Lauscha in an email Jan. 5. “I believe someone has told security to not let me in the building. … So I need you to somehow get me in at the appropriate time.”
Lauscha said he would try to set up a meeting.
Three days later, Lauscha said he had tried at least three times to get Tom Benson to agree to see her.
“He continues to say that he does not want to meet with you, Rita or Ryan,” Lauscha wrote. “I will continue to ask. Sorry.”
“I’d really want to tell him that I love him very much. And I really, really want some quality time with him to talk about old times,” Renee Benson told a judge nearly a month later. “And I think it’s time to pass the baton. I just think it’s time. But I really want quality time with my dad.”