Benson is Bro. Martin’s $10 million man
When the Brothers of the Sacred Heart operated St. Aloysius High School at the corner of North Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue on the edge of the French Quarter, each morning they stood on the sidewalk to greet students as they arrived for class.
Tom Benson, the future owner of the New Orleans Saints, said he would walk past St. Aloysius with his brothers and “admire a school that we could only wish to attend.”
The Benson family finances were so tight they couldn’t afford the tuition. In those days – in the middle of WWII – the tuition “couldn’t have been more than $2 a month,” said Brother Martin president John Devlin.
Brother Martin Hernandez, the St. Aloysius principal, heard about the Benson brothers and contacted their father.
“Pay what you can for the boys,” Brother Martin told the elder Benson.
“I have never forgotten that,” Tom Benson said. “The foundation for what I learned as a young man was built there.”
On Nov. 3, Benson, a 1944 graduate, and his wife Gayle paid tribute to the Sacred Heart Brothers’ educational generosity with a $10 million gift to Brother Martin, by far the largest single donation in the school’s history.
A graced gift
“We’ve had seven-figure gifts before, but we’ve never had an eight-figure gift,” Devlin said. “This is a grace. The Holy Spirit has been at work all the way through, from the time when Brother Martin reached out to the Benson family (in the 1940s) all the way to Tom and Gayle being in the position to make this incredible gift that has changed our school.”
Benson made the first of 10 annual installments at the halftime of the Brother Martin-Archbishop Rummel football game Nov. 3 by handing Devlin a check for $1 million. The gift will establish the Brother Nicholas, S.C., Building Endowment Fund, named in honor of Brother Nicholas Geisenberg, who served for 78 years in religious life and was a mainstay at St. Aloysius and Brother Martin as a teacher and moderator of the Parents Club.
The endowment will help the school maintain and enhance its facilities.
“This is a building endowment,” Devlin said. “When we approached Mr. Benson, we told him the story of how the Brothers made the decision in 1968 to consolidate St. Aloysius and Cor Jesu, and one of the things that led to that decision was the fact that the St. Aloysius campus was in bad shape and it was land-locked.
“There was a very old building and no room for expansion. What this building endowment is intended to do is make sure that never happens again to the Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. We want our campus to be the state of the art so that it is best for the students and the faculty. It will be used for maintaining and upgrading technology infrastructure.”
The school also could use the money for ongoing building projects. Brother Martin will name the student mall, which is in the center of campus, the Tom and Gayle Benson Mall.
Always reach out
Devlin said stories have been passed down through the years about how Brother Martin Hernandez always told administrators to keep an open door to any family that needed a Catholic education.
“It’s so important to reach out to the families that maybe wouldn’t even think of Catholic education as being a possibility,” Devlin said. “One of the thing Brother Martin told us was, ‘Don’t ever let it be finances that keep a student from being able to attend.’ We’ve really tried to hold on to that.”
Benson and his brothers established the Benson Free Enterprise Library at Brother Martin in 1985 to honor their parents, Tom and Carmen. The school had a 1995 capital campaign, and Benson spearheaded a drive by the Class of 1944 to fund the building of the auxiliary gymnasium.
Tommy Mitchell, Brother Martin’s development director, called the $10 million gift “immeasurable.”
“Their decision will benefit young men in the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas for many years to come as Brother Martin will be able to continue to provide them with the best campus as well as a quality Catholic education. I am sure Brother Nick is smiling today.”