Saturday, October 26, 2002

Hundreds mourn Browns owner

Al Lerner `man of towering strength'

By Tom Withers
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Al Lerner spent his entire life giving to others, laughing with them and leading them.

Mr. Lerner, a self-made billionaire who donated millions to charity, was remembered Friday as a loving husband and father, keen businessman, avid sportsman and "man of towering strength" during a two-hour funeral service.

The owner of the Browns, who helped bring the NFL back to Cleveland in 1998, died Wednesday night following a long illness. He was 69.

Hundreds of mourners, including business and civic leaders, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Cleveland mayor Jane Campbell, Browns coach Butch Davis and his entire team, attended the service at Temple-Tifereth Israel.

"All of us have lost something that can never be replaced," said Charlie Cawley, president of credit card giant MBNA Corp., a company Lerner saved from financial ruin. "Al was a powerful man in all the ways that mattered."

Mr. Cawley choked back tears while reading a letter he wrote late Wednesday night after Mr. Lerner's passing.

"He was our leader," Mr. Cawley read. "He will always be our leader. He made MBNA happen, the rest of us just helped."

Mr. Lerner, who in the late '50s was making $75 a week selling furniture, was also eulogized by retired Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak. Mr. Lerner served in the Corps from 1953 to '57, and often credited his military experience for shaping his life.

In 2000, Mr. Lerner was appointed by President Bush to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a 15-member panel that gives advice on foreign intelligence to the president.

Gen. Krulak read a handwritten letter from President Bush to Mr. Lerner's wife, Norma.

"Al personified the American spirit, he was an entrepreneur who dreamed big," Mr. Bush wrote. "He was a patriot that served his country. But most of all he was a devoted husband and father."

Mr. Lerner, who paid $530 million for the Browns, had an estimated net worth of $4.3 billion. And he gave a good portion of his assets away to help others.

The only son of Russian immigrants, Mr. Lerner, a New York native, gave $25 million to Columbia University, his alma mater, for a student center.

Norma, Mr. Lerner's high school sweetheart and wife of 47 years, said he had asked her to eulogize him. She fondly recalled their early years together trying to make ends meet.

Mr. Lerner's 40-year-old son, Randy, will technically take over as leader of the Browns.

The Browns will wear a patch bearing Mr. Lerner's initials. There will be a moment of silence Sunday when the club visits the New York Jets.

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