Al Lerner, a billionaire who used his wealth from banking, real estate and credit card giant MBNA Corp. to bring the NFL's Browns back to Cleveland, died Wednesday in Cleveland, the team announced. He was 69.
Lerner, who was a leading philanthropist in the Ohio area, underwent surgery in May 2001, reportedly to remove a brain tumor. In June, he said that he had been in and out of the hospital over the last year. The cause of his death was not immediately known.
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 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 sports team.
The purchase came three years after his longtime friend Art Modell moved the original franchise to Baltimore. Lerner later served as chairman of the NFL's finance committee and was regarded as one of the league's most influential owners.
The son of an immigrant candy shop owner, Lerner was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned a degree from Columbia College in 1955 and then served in the Marines for two years as a pilot.
His first job afterward was selling furniture. He earned $75 a week.
He saved enough to enter a deal to purchase a Cleveland apartment building. His real estate empire steadily grew, and he went on to acquire banking interests in Baltimore.
As a philanthropist, Lerner gave generously to hospitals and universities. In June 2002, he and his family gave $100 million to the Cleveland Clinic.
A $25-million gift from Lerner helped pay for Columbia's Lerner Hall, a student activities center. He gave $10 million, on behalf of his wife, to University Hospitals of Cleveland to help provide the hospital a new 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.
He is survived by his wife, Norma; a son, Randolph; a daughter, Nancy; and seven grandchildren.