St. Charles Avenue’s Activists of the Year 2010

Gayle Benson | Tom Benson & Unsung Hero Robert Fogarty

St. Charles Avenue magazine is proud to present its “Activists of the Year” for 2010, Gayle and Tom Benson, and Unsung Hero for 2010, Robert Fogarty.

By honoring these activists, we’re honoring their time, talent and effort in the service of organizations that benefit our city. This year marks a departure in that we have chosen to focus on only two individuals; you’ll see on the following pages why their efforts, rather than just their personalities, should be appreciated.

The Unsung Hero acknowledges a person who’s making great strides for New Orleans but hasn’t yet received the recognition he or she deserves.

Please read on to learn why these three outstanding people, and the organizations they support, are so deserving of recognition.

Gayle Benson

While the accomplishments of her husband may be more prominent in the public eye, New Orleans Saints First Lady Gayle Benson has established an independent presence as an avid activist in the community. “Giving back is part of our learning and teaching over our lives,” Mrs. Benson says. “It is a way of life and one of the keys to true happiness and complete self-fulfillment.”

Mrs. Benson’s spiritual upbringing (She calls her education “a product of the nuns and priests of New Orleans”) has influenced not only her personal life, but also her philanthropic one. Many of her community endeavors focus on missionary, religious and theological work, both locally and regionally. She holds leadership roles with the Oblate School of Theology, the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, Friends of St. Louis Cathedral and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, among others. Mrs. Benson also credits her family upbringing with the values she exhibits in her work today.

When she isn’t supporting the Saints or engaging in various philanthropies, Mrs. Benson takes advantage of what little spare time is left. She enjoys reading biographies, maintaining her home and other properties and, most of all, spending time with her husband. “There is very little free time in our lives, but the best is sharing time with my husband at the end of each day,” she says. “And on Sundays when we celebrate Mass together, then begin our day.”

The dynamic couple utilizes the only vacation time they have – during the Saints’ off-season – by boating in Maine for four to five weeks.

Despite her many accomplishments, when asked what she’s most proud of, Mrs. Benson focuses on those around her. “I am humbled by the life with my husband who is an extraordinary man – hard-working, intelligent, talented and very giving to everyone,” she says. “He treats me with the most beautiful respect and attention.” Mrs. Benson also glows with pride for “the Saints football players, coaches and staff who work so very hard every day to give us an exciting game on game day. They have an unbelievable work ethic and express their talents in such a beautiful way for us to enjoy each week.”    By Jordan DeFrank

Past and Present Organizations
Board of Trustees for the Oblate School of Theology
Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
Friends of St. Louis Cathedral
Incarnate Word University Board of Directors
Missionary Oblates Partnership
Ochsner Health Foundation Board
Planned Giving Advisory Committee –
Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation
Incarnate Word University Board of Trustees
NOMA Advisory Board

Medal of the Order of St. Louis
Interior Design Awards
Elizabeth Seaton Award

Tom Benson

One wouldn’t expect one of the most successful and recognizable men in New Orleans to also be one of the most charitable. The owner of the New Orleans Saints for more than 25 years, Tom Benson has been a critical force in the recovery of the city post-Hurricane Katrina, including with the New Orleans Saints Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund, the Boys & Girls Clubs, United Way, the Saints Gulf Coast Renewal Fund, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Habitat For Humanity and more, but his philanthropic efforts have been a presence in this city long before August 2005.

Mr. Benson and the Saints have donated more than $15 million in charitable contributions, goods and services throughout the region; however, their contributions extend beyond the monetary. The Saints’ road to success has been often paralleled to the city’s road to recovery after the storm; the unprecedented surge of morale, faith and community presence that Mr. Benson and the Saints have brought to New Orleans is a kind of activism that can’t be measured.

“The greatest impact over the last 26 years that Saints have had has been in the community, and the club’s charitable involvement has been among his most rewarding endeavors personally since 1985,” Mr. Benson says. “I think I realized immediately the Saints could be more than just a football team to the region, and that the club’s players, coaches and staff were pacesetters when it came to volunteerism, involvement, donations and charitable outreach.”

Mr. Benson’s humanitarian work has included many organizations outside of the Saints. He recently donated $8 million to Loyola University of New Orleans to create the Tom Benson Jesuit Center; the Gayle and Tom Benson Charitable Foundation also donated $14 million to San Antonio Oblate School of Theology. The Foundation funded the building of Gayle and Tom Benson Field on the University of Incarnate Word Campus; additionally, Mr. Benson donated the Benson Memorial Library at Central Catholic. He is currently working with Oschner Foundation Hospital on a cancer center that will be named in his honor.

When he isn’t winning Super Bowls or contributing to the city, Mr. Benson enjoys weekends away. “My wife, Gayle, and I really enjoy driving over the Causeway and going to the Northshore,” he says. “We spend many weekends, not during the football season of course, taking trips like that.”

Mr. Benson says the proudest and most exciting moment of his life came on February 7, 2010. “There aren’t many words that can describe the feeling. To look around the stadium and see so many of our fans and the impact that it had, well, it was very special,” he says. “I can’t think of a finer moment in celebration than the one we all experienced when we came back from Miami with the Lombardi Trophy … It was capped off by the most heartfelt and warm pouring of emotions you can experience when we had the parade … It’s something that still gives me goose bumps to this day when I think about it.”  By Jordan DeFrank

Select Past and Present Organizations:
National World War II Museum
Pensacola Naval Museum
U.S. Navy
With the Saints: Special Olympics
United Way
Make-A-Wish Foundation

Oblate Doctor of Human Letters from the
Roman Catholic Church
Top Five Most Charitable Professional Organizations
Good Samaritan Award in Philanthropy from the Volunteers of America
Integritas Vitae Award from Loyola University
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award from the National Catholic Educational Association
U.S. Army’s Army Strong Award
U.S. Navy Memorial’s Lone Sailor Award

Robert Fogarty

For Robert Fogarty, activism is a full-time job. The 27-year-old social entrepreneur, who founded and Dear New Orleans, LLC, first arrived in New Orleans after graduating from college to work for AmeriCorps, a national service program.

While working in former Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s office, Fogarty witnessed first-hand the organizational strengths and pitfalls of the city’s hurricane evacuation plans. On August 30, 2008, in response to Hurricane Gustav’s threat, the mayor activated the City Assisted Evacuation Plan for the first time since its inception in ’06. During this time, more than 200 volunteers assisted evacuation operations at the Union Passenger Terminal. It was ultimately a successful effort, but it revealed to Fogarty the difficulties that arise during a large-scale evacuation. “Stronger initial coordination and planning would allow willing volunteers to report to pick-up locations across the city at pre-determined times, rather than [evacuees] converging on the embarkation stations,” he says.’s mission is to assist the city of New Orleans, state of Louisiana and the country to safely evacuate 20,000 residents who are without reliable transportation. The community-based organization encourages citizen volunteers to sign up on its website. “Conducting outreach and establishing relationships with organizations that desire to assist the evacuation of high-need populations will allow greater empowerment of evacuation volunteers across the city.”

Fogarty has also helped capture the optimistic morale of the city on camera with his venture, Dear New Orleans, LLC. He attends a variety of events – from game day parties at local bars to major fundraisers in swanky hotels – armed with a camera and dozens of Sharpies, which subjects use to scribble quips on their hands – “love letters to New Orleans.” He’s photographed Saints players, politicians and celebrities in addition to kids, young professionals and parents.

In the long term, Fogarty – whose operations began just last year – hopes to establish a nationwide proof of concept in the city and export it to other vulnerable American cities through networking and affiliate programs. So far, has 27 nonprofit, faith-based and neighborhood-based partner organizations and more than 700 “evacuteers” ready to assist in case of a mandatory evacuation.

“I have a lot of room to grow professionally,” he says, “But I desperately believe in the opportunity we have as a city, and as one small example of this.”   By Sarah Ravits

“40 Under 40” by Gambit
“People to Watch”
by New Orleans Magazine
“Mr. Clutch” 1993 Memorial Little League Baseball

Jeffery Johnston Photographs