Hundreds gather for funeral of Browns owner

By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Cleveland Browns owner Al Lerner was remembered as a loving husband and father, a keen businessman and "man of towering strength" during a two-hour funeral service Friday.

Lerner, a self-made billionaire who donated millions to charity as well as brought the NFL back to Cleveland, 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."

Lerner, started out making $75 a week selling furniture in the 1950s, also was eulogized by retired Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak. Lerner served in the Corps from 1953-57, and often credited his military experience for shaping his life.

"He absorbed the ethos of the Marine Corps into his soul," Krulak said. "As the old adage says, 'Once a Marine, always a Marine.'"

Lerner used the wealth of his banking, real estate and credit-card company to buy the expansion Browns in 1998, three years after Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore.

In 2000, 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. Krulak read a handwritten letter from President Bush to Lerner's wife, Norma.

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

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.

Lerner's endeavors and involvement outside the sports world were underscored by the fact that the Cleveland Browns were mentioned only once during the service.

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

In June, Lerner and his wife gave $100 million to the Cleveland Clinic, the largest gift the hospital ever received from a single donor. His funeral service took place just a few blocks from the clinic's Lerner Research Institute.

Norma, 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 with two young children.

"From Brooklyn to Cleveland. From struggling financially to ... well, not struggling," she said to laughter.

"He had an unwavering commitment to helping others. He was the most generous man I have ever known and not just when he had extra to give," she said. "There was always someone he wanted to help whether they were sick, financially troubled or just needed a good friend."

Tagliabue led an NFL contingent that included owners and representatives from 15 teams. Also in attendance were Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome and former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, as well as Ohio Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich and Cleveland Indians owner Larry Dolan.

The Lerner family will retain ownership of the Browns, with 40-year-old Randy, Al's only son, technically taking over as the leader of the organization. He is the NFL's second-youngest owner behind Washington's Daniel Snyder, who is 37.

The Browns will honor Lerner by wearing a patch bearing his initials over the left chest of their jersey. There will be a moment of silence this Sunday when the club visits the New York Jets.

Campbell announced that a roadway bordering Cleveland Browns Stadium has been renamed "Alfred Lerner Way."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)