Tom Benson was admiring the beautiful architecture of the Notre Dame Seminary chapel on South Carrollton Avenue one day in 2011 when one of the seminarians spoke up.
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Sure, this is nice, he said, but you should see the conditions we’re living in.
A quick tour showed Benson the contrast between the seminary’s impressive public areas and its living quarters, where students were housed without air conditioning and amid exposed wiring and windows in need of replacement.
“He said, ‘This is completely unacceptable. We need to have better resources to train our future priests,’ " said the Rev. James Wehner, the seminary’s rector.
In the years after that encounter in 2011, Benson — the wealthiest man in Louisiana — would donate millions of dollars to Notre Dame for renovations and facilities.
Benson’s philanthropy has totaled tens of millions in recent years, with the Catholic Church and schools and universities in both New Orleans and San Antonio among the largest recipients.
The long list of Benson’s donations shows repeated connections to his faith, his personal history and the sport that propelled him to his great wealth.
In addition to the string of athletic fields, stadiums and centers that bear his name as a sign of his contributions, the owner of the Saints and Pelicans, who died Thursday at age 90, could also be more self-effacing with his giving and had a focus on reaching out to help when he could, said Archbishop Gregory Aymond, a longtime friend of Benson and his wife, Gayle.
Beyond his contributions to the New Orleans Archdiocese, Catholic Charities and other institutions, Benson also focused his giving on scholarships to help those without the means to attend Catholic schools and often reached out when specific situations arose, such as when he saw a news story about a person who needed money for a special type of wheelchair, Aymond said.
“I know of some situations where he gave significant gifts and no one knew where the money came from,” Aymond said. “He really had a tenderness in his heart for those in need, those who didn’t have opportunities.”
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No exact figures
The exact amount that the Bensons have donated to charity is not readily available, and representatives of the family were not able to immediately provide figures on their giving.
But the Gayle and Tom Benson Charitable Foundation, through which the family has routed much of its charitable work in recent years, has disbursed more than $71.5 million since it was formed in 2007, according to its tax returns. That giving has steadily increased, reaching $14.5 million in 2016, the most recent year for which records are available.
This year, Forbes estimated the Benson family’s net worth at $3 billion; he ranked 288th on the magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans.
Perhaps the largest donation by the Bensons came as gifts totaling $25 million to the Ochsner Health System to establish the Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center at the hospital’s main campus on Jefferson Highway.
Many of the family’s other large donations are tied to Benson’s Catholic faith, either directly through the gifts to the church and its organizations or to Catholic schools, many of which had a personal connection to the family.
The total amount that went to church organizations is not clear, but in 2012 Tom and Gayle Benson would be honored with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, the highest papal award that can be bestowed on a Catholic layperson, in recognition of their donations.
“As Tom continued to grow in wisdom as well as in age, he realized how much God had given to him, and he wanted to be a good steward of those gifts,” Aymond said.
Those donations included large gifts to Catholic schools. New Orleans' Brother Martin High School — which was formed by the consolidation of Benson’s alma mater, St. Aloysius, and Cor Jesu — has received at least $10 million. Anther $5 million went to St. Mary’s Dominican High School.
The family has given $15 million to the Oblate School of Theology and more to the University of the Incarnate Word, both in San Antonio.
Benson gave $4 million for a stadium at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio in memory of his son Robert, who graduated from the school. Robert Benson died of cancer in the 1980s.
Locally, Benson gave not only to scholarships for high school students but also to his alma mater, Loyola University. The family has given $15 million to the university over the past 30 years, according to the school, including money for the Jesuit Social Research Institute, funding for the first phase of construction of the Gregory R. Choppin Chemistry Wing in Monroe Hall and money to establish the Tom Benson Jesuit Center on campus.
That giving has also funded scholarships for 80 students at the university over the years.
“Those are just the highlights of his gifts. There were many, many times he was there when we needed help,” said the Rev. James Carter, president emeritus of Loyola.
Multiple sources involved with the Saints and Pelicans responded with the same word when asked how things will move forward following Tom Benson’s passing on Thursday: “Seamless.” Gayle Benson will now step in, and they are expecting things to operate as usual.
Journalist Kathy Finn, who wrote the unauthorized biography “Tom Benson: A Billionaire’s Journey,” said that Gayle Benson was responsible for expanding the family’s giving beyond the church in recent years.
“A lot of people noticed that his charitable giving increased after he met Gayle,” Finn said. “My book makes it clear that he was brutally tough in business, and I think the charitable giving — I don’t think he saw it in the same way as she did.”
In part, the donations made by the Bensons in recent years may have been an attempt to smooth over the controversy caused by his reported moves to take the Saints to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina.
“She saw, probably even more than Tom did, that after Katrina he needed to do something to rehabilitate his public image because of the lingering bitterness over what happened,” Finn said.
Gayle Benson — “even more staunchly New Orleanian than Tom was” — also had a more diverse set of causes she championed and groups she wanted to fund, Finn said.
The creation of the foundation would mark a turning point for the family’s charitable giving, with donations branching out beyond organizations tied to Benson’s faith or personal history, Finn said.
More groups, including the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, the Audubon Nature Institute and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeast Louisiana would all benefit from grants from the foundation.
Steve Gleason, the former Saints safety who has been focused on ALS advocacy since his diagnosis with the disease in 2011, turned to Benson when funding was needed for the Team Gleason House. The facility, which can house up to 18 people, is designed to give those living with ALS independence through many of the technologies that Gleason uses.
But as Gleason was pushing for the facility, it became clear that Medicaid would cover only part of the cost of living there, leaving a potentially expensive gap for those who would take advantage of its services, Team Gleason Associate Executive Director Clare Durrett said.
After meeting with Gleason, the Bensons gave $5 million to create an endowment for the center that Durrett said should cover those additional costs going forward.
“It’s just been extraordinary,” Durrett said. “We raise money for everything, and this is one thing we don’t have to raise money for.”
The Bensons would also be a major force behind the construction of Yulman Stadium at Tulane University, giving $7.5 million to the effort. The family also donated another $500,000 for a chapel in the school’s Catholic student center.
“Would we have been able to build Yulman Stadium without him? Who knows?” Tulane President Michael Fitts said. “They were a major, major part of being able to bring back football to Uptown.”
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Editor's note: This story and the accompanying graphic was updated on March 19, 2018 to correct an error in the amount Tom and Gayle Benson gave to St. Mary's Dominican High School. The family gave the school $5 million.