Visitation begins for late New Orleans Pelicans owner Tom Benson
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans-style goodbye for Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson began outside a seminary Wednesday, with fans dressed in black and gold singing and chanting as they entered the chapel where Benson’s body will lie in repose for two days of public visitation.
More than three dozen people lined up to file through doors of Notre Dame seminary shortly after the casket bearing Benson’s body arrived, accompanied by his widow Gayle, executives of the professional sports franchises he owns, and Archbishop Gregory Aymond, among others.
Some chanted a familiar cheer – “Who `dat say they gonna beat them Saints” – as they waited for visitation to begin. Others began singing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” as the line began moving inside.
“He just meant so much to the city,” a somber but smiling Craig Preston, a New Orleans resident, said as he walked in.
The occasion brought back memories for Andrew Ferdinand, 22, who was 11 years old when a revitalized Saints team – led by coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees – beat the Atlanta Falcons in a newly repaired Superdome, lifting spirits in the beleaguered city a year after Hurricane Katrina.
“Tom Benson’s a big part of New Orleans,” said Ferdinand, “After Katrina, he stayed. He put all of this work into New Orleans to make it thrive again.”
Kenneth Collns, 54, sported Saints-themed garb as he approached the seminary with other mourners and well-wishers later in the morning. But it wasn’t just sports that brought him to pay his respects.
He noted Benson’s philanthropy, including financing of a cancer center at a local hospital. “He didn’t have to do those things,” said Collins.
Benson’s body was to lie in repose at the seminary chapel Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m., and Thursday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
A private funeral Mass is set for noon Friday at St. Louis Cathedral.
The 90-year-old Benson’s death was announced last Thursday. He had been hospitalized since Feb. 16 with flu symptoms.
Benson was already a success in the automobile business when he bought the Saints in 1985. Under his ownership, the NFL team achieved its first winning seasons and a Super Bowl championship. He bought the city’s NBA franchise in 2012.
His death last week followed a public, acrimonious family split: Benson made it known in January 2015 that he intended for Gayle Benson, his third wife, to inherit complete control of the Saints and Pelicans. Greg Bensel, the senior vice president of communications for both clubs, said the NFL and NBA have both approved Benson’s succession plan.
Until then, Benson’s daughter, Renee, and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, had been in line to take over the Benson business empire. An attempt by the estranged heirs to have Benson declared mentally incompetent failed in court.