Offering up her two previous failed marriages as examples, but not mentioning the bitter legal dispute her husband is engaged in with his daughter and grandchildren, Gayle Benson told young people graduating from Our Lady of Holy Cross College on Sunday that life guarantees this much: many kinds of hardships.
But their purpose is just to “keep life interesting,” and there’s nothing a steady faith in God can’t overcome, the wife of Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson said in an occasionally candid commencement speech to about 170 students receiving their degrees at the Alario Center in Westwego, plus their families and friends.
Her husband didn’t accompany her to Sunday’s event.
“We all will reach difficult times,” Benson said. “We will always need to keep our faith as we are tested on a daily basis. (But) with confidence, it will pass.”
As the 68-year-old businesswoman recounted, many decades before she wed the owner of New Orleans’ NFL and NBA franchises, she felt she knew everything there was to know about the world when she got married for the first time at 19.
But the disenchanting reality was that she didn’t, and the Catholic Church granted her an annulment the following year, she said.
Nine years later, Benson said, she met a young boy and girl whose mother “was on drugs” and whose father “wasn’t much better.”
“I felt so sorry for those children, I took them in my home — and then made the mistake of marrying their father, but not in the church,” said Benson, who spent most of her professional career in interior decorating after not finding much joy working at dental offices, as a secretary and in sales. “I promised myself once the children were grown ... I would divorce the father. And I did after 10 long years.”
Even now, Benson — who has no children of her own — remains in contact with her ex-husband’s son. She can’t do the same with his daughter because she has since “died of an overdose,” Benson said.
“My faith became very strong over those most difficult years,” she said. “(But) after that incident, I vowed never to marry again. I was embarrassed that I had made two mistakes in marriage and kept turning back to the Lord, always asking what it was that he wanted from me.”
It all became abundantly clear when she was 57 and was introduced to twice-widowed Tom Benson after a Monday morning Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, she said. Gayle and Tom Benson immediately hit it off, dated for about four months and married in October 2004.
“I am still amazed he took his eyes off the football field long enough to notice me,” she joked.
Throughout their marriage, the Bensons have donated significant portions of their wealth to various causes, both religious and lay.
Two for which Gayle Benson was honored on Sunday are a $20 million cancer treatment facility at Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson Parish and support for the charitable foundation started by former Saints player Steve Gleason, who is battling the neuromuscular disease commonly referred to as ALS and who is an advocate for patients with the illness.
Benson said her third marriage not only allowed her to fulfill one of her primary life goals — to “always be in a position to help others” — perhaps more than she could have imagined; it also ensured she’d live out her golden years with “the best, kindest person” she’s ever met.
“Now I think, after all these years, I’m finally getting an idea why the Lord sent me all the trials in my early life,” said Benson, who accepted an honorary degree from Our Lady of Holy Cross prior to her speech. “He was preparing me to be mature enough to know what I would do when I was touched by a true angel.”
Her husband announced about four months ago that he wants her to take control of the sports teams and other business assets he owns in Louisiana and Texas when he dies.
Tom Benson, 87, also revealed that he no longer wanted his daughter from his first marriage — Renee Benson — or her children, Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc, to have any involvement with his business empire, which is estimated to be worth almost $2 billion.
Ever since Tom Benson publicized his intentions, he and his spurned relatives have launched a series of civil actions against each other in various state and federal courts in New Orleans and San Antonio. All remain pending.