Tom Benson, owner of the NFL's New Orleans Saints and NBA's New Orleans Pelicans, is remembered in San Antonio for building a string of successful car dealerships and banks and for his philanthropic support of local Catholic inistitutions. Credit: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, the auto and banking magnate who built his fortune in San Antonio and is remembered for his generosity to this city, has died at 90.

Hospitalized with the flu Feb. 16, Benson passed away Thursday at Ochsner Medical Center with his wife Gayle at his side, the Saints organization stated on Twitter.

Born Thomas Milton Benson Jr. on July 12, 1927, in New Orleans to Thomas and Carmelite Benson, Benson was raised near the city’s historic French Quarter. After graduating from Loyola University, he went to work as a car salesman in his hometown. Then, in 1956, he moved to San Antonio to revive a poorly performing car dealership.

Successful in that venture, Benson was awarded 25 percent interest in the dealership. He became full owner of Tom Benson Chevrolet in San Antonio in 1962 and went on to build a net worth of about $2.8 billion, according to Forbes, through auto dealerships, banks, real estate, and sports franchises. At one time, his automotive empire was spread among 27 dealerships in Texas, Louisiana, and South Carolina.

Benson’s other holdings included San Antonio-based Lone Star Capital Bank. He sold a collection of southern U.S. banks in 1996 for $78 million in stock.

On Friday, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros recalled working with Benson during his days as mayor of San Antonio, and called him one of the city’s dominant business figures.

“Any list of the top-10 most important business people in this city over the last three decades – which would include Red McCombs, H.B. Zachry, Walter McAllister, Gen. [Robert] McDermott – Tom Benson would be prominently on that list,” Cisneros said. “A city is built by the thousands of interactions of people who are motivated, intelligent, and have a vision. And we were fortunate in San Antonio that Tom Benson spent most of his business career helping build modern San Antonio.”

Benson famously purchased the New Orleans Saints team in 1985 after learning the team was on the verge of being sold and moved out of his home state.

In later years, during negotiations to renovate the Saints’ home field, the Superdome, speculation arose that because of Benson’s business ties to San Antonio, and the availability of the Alamodome as a playing facility, the team could be moved here.

After Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage at the Superdome in 2005, the team temporarily relocated its operations to San Antonio and began negotiations to play home games at the Alamodome. The Saints played three games here during that fall season – the only regular-season NFL games ever played in San Antonio.

Despite tumultuous talks into 2016, the team remained in New Orleans, and Benson stated at the time that he was committed to the city “forever, as long as the community commits to me.”

In 2012, Benson purchased from the NBA the New Orleans Hornets, now known as the New Orleans Pelicans. Sports fans in New Orleans honored Benson on Thursday night, after the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Pelicans 98-93, with spontaneous second-line parades, a long-held tradition in the Crescent City.

At the start of 2015, Benson’s troubled personal life began to make headlines. Widowed twice, Benson was estranged from his daughter Renee after bequeathing most of his fortune to his third wife, Gayle, whom he married in 2004. As the surviving child of three Benson adopted, Renee Benson LeBlanc and her two children were in line to take over his businesses.

LeBlanc challenged her father’s mental competence in a 13-month court battle in San Antonio, seeking control of her late mother’s $1 billion estate. The case was settled just over a year ago.

Benson’s philanthropy in San Antonio extended to several Catholic schools, Incarnate Word University and the Oblate School of Theology.

In addition to an endowment fund the Benson family established at Central Catholic High School in memory of their son Robert, who graduated from the school in 1966 and died of cancer in 1985, Benson also donated funds for a football stadium and library at Central Catholic that bear his name.

“The Central Catholic High School community is deeply saddened by the passing of Mr. Tom Benson,” stated President Paul Garro. “His deep faith in the Catholic Church was evident by the way he lived his life and through his transformative gifts. Not only was he a generous benefactor to Central Catholic, but across the entire nation. His generosity was a catalyst that inspired many in our community and the San Antonio area.”

Benson also donated funds for the library at St. Anthony Catholic School in honor of his son.

Stated the University of the Incarnate Word: “His death is a profound loss and one that will be felt across San Antonio and the nation. He was a stalwart supporter of our mission providing scholarships for our students and support for our athletic program which enabled us to build the Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium. His legacy will live on.”

Benson has donated millions of dollars to San Antonio’s Oblate School of Theology over the years.

“Tom’s closeness with the Oblates was especially shown in his friendship with [the late Father] John Sokolski,” said Father Leo Perez, an associate professor of moral theology. “They were both big football fans and also hunting buddies, and Tom eventually donated his home on King’s Highway to become the Oblate Benson Residence. Tom celebrated many of his family’s milestones at the Oblate School of Theology Chapel.

“I will remember him for his personal kindness and his continuous generosity, which was always accompanied by his bigger than life Louisiana-style personality.”

The Catholic Church in 2012 bestowed on Benson and wife Gayle the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice — the highest papal honor for laypeople.

Gayle Benson will assume control of her late husband’s Saints and Pelicans sports franchises, both teams said.

A public visitation is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in New Orleans, with a private funeral set for Friday, March 23, at the city’s historic St. Louis Cathedral.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...