Following the death of Tom Benson, Gayle Benson is poised to assume control of her husband's New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans sports franchises, propelling her into an elite club that just a few years ago might have seemed out of reach for a former small-business owner. 

Benson, 90, died Thursday, more than three years after he announced his plan to leave the reins of his billion-dollar business empire to Gayle Benson, 71, rather than his daughter from a previous marriage and her children. He had been hospitalized about three weeks earlier with flu-like symptoms, officials said. 

Despite objections from his jilted relatives, team officials have said both the NBA and the NFL approved the plan for Gayle Benson — who once made her living decorating homes and running dental offices — to become owner of the Pelicans and Saints following Benson's death.

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New Orleans Saints owners Gayle and Tom Benson leave the sideline before an NFL football game against the Washington in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.

It's possible that Benson's daughter, Renee, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, could contest any will drawn up by the family patriarch leaving the teams and the rest of his business empire to Gayle Benson, his third wife.

If such a suit is filed, it will likely rely on arguments similar to those raised in an unsuccessful 2015 lawsuit that questioned whether Benson was mentally fit enough to decide he wanted to leave everything to Gayle Benson and cut the others out of his personal and business lives.

Nonetheless, those close to Benson have said they are confident the plan for his wife to take over is legally unassailable.

She's been a regular at the sports leagues' meetings — except those limited to teams' controlling owners — since she married Benson in 2004. He personally briefed her about business he discussed with the NFL's powerful Finance Committee, on which he served for two decades, including several years as chairman.

"She's been on the arm of the boss, of the king of the castle," for years in anticipation of inheriting New Orleans' two treasured sports organizations, an insider remarked at one point. 

In 2016, Benson himself said of Gayle and the sports leagues: "It's nothing new to her. Not like somebody that was never in business. She knows the difference. You have to make a profit against a loss." 

Officials have also said an executive leadership team involving Dennis Lauscha, the teams' president, and Mickey Loomis, the NFL club's general manager, is ready to closely advise Benson during her stewardship.

The woman born Gayle Marie LaJaunie grew up in Algiers; attended St. Joseph, St. Anthony and Holy Name of Mary schools; and graduated from Martin Behrman High School in 1966.

She's spoken publicly about the two ill-fated marriages that followed. In her words, the first happened when she was 19 and ended in both a divorce and annulment the following year.

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Advocate file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Tom Benson and his wife Gayle being photographed in 2012 at the Alario Center.

Several years later, she said, she befriended two young children whose mother “was on drugs” and whose father was just as troubled, and she ended up marrying the dad.

She described the marriage as miserable, and she divorced the man after his children were grown. The pain of the experience worsened for her when one of them later “died of an overdose,” she has said.

She also struggled in business, especially when she ran a business that restored antiques and decorated the inside of homes, commercial buildings and yachts. 

During a roughly 13-year period beginning in 1987, Gayle Benson was targeted by roughly 20 civil lawsuits in New Orleans, disputes that mostly involved interior decoration projects overseen by her or her company. 

Some of the allegations — overbilling a client, nonpayment of an electrical contractor, foreclosure proceedings for properties she had a share in — seemed to hint at a small-business owner in disarray. 

Nonetheless, Tom Benson's top lieutenants have insisted it is not unusual for interior decorators to become ensnared in disagreements with customers or contractors. They cite what they say were a number of satisfied clients, such as Schwegmann Bros. Giant Supermarkets, Hyatt Hotels, the hotel now known as the Roosevelt, the Ritz-Carlton and the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel. 

Those close to Tom Benson also have said the education his wife has received from going to league meetings means more for her future as owner of the Saints and Pelicans than any decades-old legal problems. 

During a Monday morning Mass at St. Louis Cathedral in 2004, she was introduced to a man with whom she immediately hit it off: Tom Benson. 

They soon agreed to go on a date, drinking smoothies at Audubon Park. Four months later, they married in San Antonio, Texas, with Benson's daughter and grandchildren all standing in the wedding as members of the bridal party. 

She once joked, “I am still amazed he took his eyes off the football field long enough to notice me.”

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Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his wife Gayle Benson let the good times roll with New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond as the Krewe of Zulu parades past Gallier Hall on Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, in New Orleans, La., March 4, 2014.

In the years that followed, the pair earned public acclaim, donating significant portions of their wealth to a variety of religious and lay causes.

Two for which she was honored in recent years are a $20 million cancer treatment center at Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson Parish and a charitable foundation started by former Saints player Steve Gleason, who is battling the neuromuscular disease commonly called ALS and is an advocate for people with the illness.

But her name has also been dragged into two of the more contentious legal battles that erupted late in her husband’s life.

One involved Tom Benson’s former longtime personal assistant, who accused the Saints in federal court of firing him after he complained that Gayle Benson had made “racially derogatory comments” to and about him.

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Gayle Benson attend the Christmas Day Mass with Archbishop Aymond at the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Monday, Dec. 25, 2017.

The Saints strongly denied the allegations. A judge ruled in 2016 that under league rules, the case needed to be heard by an NFL arbitrator rather than a federal court at that point, and there is no indication that the matter has been resolved.

The other legal battle had its roots in a Dec. 21, 2014, confrontation in which Rita LeBlanc allegedly had her hands on Gayle Benson’s arms during an animated discussion in a luxury suite at a Saints game. There were differing accounts about whether LeBlanc shook her grandfather’s wife or was simply trying to keep Gayle Benson’s attention.

In any event, the twice-widowed Benson soon announced that he was cutting personal ties with his daughter and grandchildren while also firing them from jobs as executives at his companies.

One of the responses from Renee Benson and her children was to file a lawsuit questioning whether he was mentally competent enough to make such a drastic decision.

Benson insisted that he was, and he won a favorable ruling in the case. But he settled a pair of other complex court cases involved in the feud, with one of those agreements calling for him to hand over control of car dealerships and a family ranch in the San Antonio area to his daughter and grandchildren.

Gayle Benson has said marrying her third husband empowered her to “always be in a position to help others” who could benefit from philanthropy. But she said it also paired her with “the best, kindest person” she ever met, something she wasn’t sure was in the cards for her, given how her previous marriages had turned out.

“I’m finally getting an idea why the Lord sent me all the trials in my early life,” Gayle Benson said once while reflecting on her life's journey. “He was preparing me to be mature enough to know what I should do when I was touched by a true angel.” 

Staff writer Scott Kushner contributed to this report. 


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Tom Benson... 01/16/97

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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