Wednesday, October 23, 2002 Updated: November 12, 11:56 AM ET
Lerner had business skills, and hands-off approach
CLEVELAND -- Billionaire Al Lerner, who used his wealth from
banking, real estate and credit-card giant MBNA Corp. to buy the
Cleveland Browns, died Oct. 23. He was 69.
Lerner underwent surgery in May 2001, reportedly to remove a
brain tumor. In June, he said he had been in and out of the
hospital during the past year. A cause of death was not immediately
Al Lerner during the Cleveland Browns Expansion Draft at the Canton Memerial Civic Center in Canton, Ohio.
''The Browns have suffered a great loss,'' the team said
Wednesday. ''Al Lerner was a remarkable man -- exceptionally devoted
to his family, a tremendously compassionate person, and a trusted
and valued friend.
''He was the embodiment of courage, humanity, leadership and
patriotism, and he will be sorely missed.''
A regular visitor to the Browns' suburban training facility to
see the team he brought back to Cleveland in 1998, Lerner was
rarely around the past few months.
On the night before the season opener last month, Lerner went to
the Browns' hotel and gave an emotional speech to his team.
''America lost a great man,'' Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson
said Wednesday night. ''He did so much for this city.''
The Shaker Heights resident, a former furniture salesman, 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 was awarded the Browns expansion franchise
in 1998 for $530 million, at the time the highest price paid for a
Lerner named team president Carmen Policy a 10 percent partner.
Lerner's death came four years to the day that the NFL formally
transferred ownership from the Browns Trust to Lerner and Policy.
The purchase came three years after his longtime friend, Art
Modell, moved the franchise to Baltimore.
''Al Lerner magnificently fulfilled the American Dream, with
extraordinary achievement in business and philanthropy,'' NFL
commissioner Paul 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. Al's death leaves a terrible
void for all of us in the NFL. We extend our deepest sympathies to
his wife Norma and to his family.''
After bringing the Browns back to Cleveland, 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.''
Lerner was a minority owner of the former Browns, and it was in
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.
''None of that matters. What matters is that in 1999 there's
going to be a team called the Cleveland Browns,'' he said while
bidding for the team.
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
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
Lerner also was chairman of Town & Country Trust, a
Baltimore-based real estate investment trust that owns and manages
Lerner was born May 8, 1933, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He started from
modest beginnings and earned a degree from Columbia College in
He later became a trustee of Columbia University and received
the Hamilton Medal, the school's highest honor, in 1997.
As a philanthropist, Lerner gave generously to hospitals and
In June 2002, he and his family gave $100 million to the
Cleveland Clinic, the largest gift ever given to a Northeast Ohio
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.
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 was one of the 1998 recipients of the Horatio Alger Award,
presented to promoters of ''the American dream'' by creating
opportunities for people regardless of age, race, gender or
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.