Browns owner Lerner dies at 69Posted: Wednesday October 23, 2002 10:06 PM
Updated: Thursday October 24, 2002 3:36 AM
CLEVELAND (AP) -- Al Lerner gave millions to charity, but perhaps one of the self-made billionaire's greatest gifts went to Cleveland's rabid football fans.
He brought back their beloved Browns.
Lerner, who used his wealth from banking, real estate and credit-card giant MBNA Corp. to buy the Browns in 1998, died Wednesday night. He was 69.
Lerner's death came four years to the day that the NFL formally transferred ownership to the native New Yorker and one-time furniture salesman who adopted Cleveland as his home.
Lerner underwent surgery in May 2001, reportedly to remove a brain tumor, and in June said he had been in and out of the hospital over the past year. The cause of his death was not immediately known.
"The Browns have suffered a great loss," the team said in a statement. "Al Lerner was a remarkable man -- exceptionally devoted to his family, a tremendously compassionate person, and a trusted and valued friend."
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Lerner's death "leaves a terrible void for all of us in the NFL."
"Al Lerner magnificently fulfilled the American Dream, with extraordinary achievement in business and philanthropy," Tagliabue said. "Tough and considerate at the same time, his judgment and advice was always special. His NFL legacy is as much about his being an influential league leader as it is being the generous Browns owner."
A regular visitor to the Browns' suburban training facility to see the team he helped return to Cleveland in 1998, Lerner was rarely seen publicly in the past few months.
However, on the night before the season opener against Kansas City last month, Lerner went to the team hotel and gave an emotional speech.
"America lost a great man," wide receiver Kevin Johnson said Wednesday night. "He's done so much for the country as a whole and especially the Cleveland area."
A resident of suburban Shaker Heights, Lerner was ranked 36th on Forbes magazine's 2002 list of the richest Americans with a net worth of $4.3 billion.
Although chairman and chief executive officer of MBNA, the world's largest independent credit-card issuer, Lerner usually shunned the limelight.
That changed when he outbid five other groups and was awarded the Browns expansion franchise for $530 million, at the time the highest price paid for a sports team. He hired Carmen Policy as team president and gave Policy, formerly with the San Francisco 49ers, 10 percent ownership.
The purchase came three years after his longtime friend, Art Modell, moved the franchise to Baltimore.
Lerner was a minority owner of the former Browns, and it was on one of his jets where Modell struck a deal with Maryland authorities to move the team.
While Lerner admitted he had a "front row" seat, he said the move was Modell's decision.
After bringing the Browns back, Lerner served as chairman of the NFL's finance committee and was regarded as one of the league's most influential owners.
"The city of Cleveland has lost a true giant," Cleveland Indians owner Larry Dolan said. "His leadership in bringing the Browns back to Cleveland is only one example of how much he has done for the city."
Unlike the flamboyant Jerry Jones of Dallas or the opinionated Modell, Lerner was a hands-off owner.
He followed a similar approach in most of his business dealings.
The son of an immigrant candy shop owner, Lerner was a tough-minded kid, whose first job selling furniture paid him $75 a week.
He saved enough to enter a deal to purchase a Cleveland apartment building. His real estate empire grew, and he went on to acquire banking interests in Baltimore.
In 1991, he spun off the MBNA Credit Corp. from debt-ridden MNC Financial in Maryland with a stock offering that raised $995 million. He ended up with a 10 percent stake in MBNA and became its chief executive.
Lerner also was chairman of Town & Country Trust, a Baltimore-based real estate investment trust that owns and manages residential properties.
Lerner was born May 8, 1933, in Brooklyn. He started from modest beginnings and earned a degree from Columbia in 1955. He later became a university trustee and received the Hamilton Medal, the school's highest honor, in 1997.
As a philanthropist, Lerner gave generously to hospitals and universities.
In June 2002, he and his family gave $100 million to the Cleveland Clinic, the largest gift ever given to a Northeast Ohio institution.
"I love helping people," he said recently. "It vindicates what I have been working for all these years. I have always wanted to leave a legacy in the field of medicine, where I can have some contribution in both furthering and developing new research along with helping sick people to get better treatment.
"That is what I hope my legacy is going to be, not just that I made a bunch of money."
Lerner's $25 million gift helped pay for Columbia's Lerner Hall, a student activities center.
He gave $10 million, on behalf of his wife, Norma, to University Hospitals of Cleveland to help provide a new hospital wing.
Lerner also helped create the Cleveland Browns Hero Fund to aid one family each from the New York City Fire and Police Departments who lost a parent in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He was president of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which oversees a medical complex with an international reputation. His gift of $16 million to the Clinic led to the 1999 opening of the Lerner Research Institute.
In October 2001, President Bush named Lerner to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides independent advice to the president on the quality of the nation's intelligence system.
A former Marine, Lerner hired former FBI and Secret Service agents to work at MBNA. He also hired former Secret Service director Lew Merletti as the Browns' security director.
He is survived by his wife, the former Norma Wolkoff, two
children and seven grandchildren. Services will be at 1 p.m. Friday
at the Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland.