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Buffalo Bills Founder and Owner Ralph Wilson Dies at Grosse Pointe Shores Home

The future ownership of the NFL franchise and Wilson's Detroit business holdings is unclear.

Ralph C. Wilson, 95, died Tuesday at his Grosse Pointe Shores home. (Photo: Buffalo Bills)
Ralph C. Wilson, 95, died Tuesday at his Grosse Pointe Shores home. (Photo: Buffalo Bills)

Grosse Pointe Shores resident Ralph Wilson, the only owner the Buffalo Bills pro footbal team has ever known, died Tuesday at the age of 95.

Wilson’s death was announced Tuesday by Bills CEO and President Russ Brandon at the NFL annual meeting in Orlando, Crain’s Detroit Business reports. Wilson died at his home.

“This incredible man was the personification of the Buffalo Bills,” Brandon said in a statement. “His life was grit, determination and resolve. He was bigger than life in many ways and yet he was the everyday man, driving his Ford Taurus to the local store and greeting everyone as they called out ‘Hi Ralph!’ “

Wilson, a native of Columbus, OH,  founded the Bills in 1959 for $25,000. Forbes.com now estimates the value of the Bills at $870 milion.

Succession plans are unclear. However, Crain’s cited a Buffalo News story that said Wilson was emphatic about not selling the Bills while he was still living, but that the franchise would be sold after his death.

“Right now all of us are absorbing this tremendous personal loss,” Brandon said in a statement. “We are performing our day-to-day functions as we normally would. We understand our fans’ curiosity in wanting to know what the future holds for our organization and that will be addressed in the near future. But at this time, we are committed to honoring the life and legacy of Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the man who delivered NFL football to Buffalo.”

Wilson’s death also leaves unclear the future ownership of Detroit-based Ralph C. Wilson Industries, which includes manufacturing, television and radio stations, insurance and contract drilling operations, Crain’s said.

Wilson also owned Ralph Wilson Equity Fund LLC,  an investment firm in Grosse Pointe Park, that was one of the original investors in the Ardesta LLC venture capital company co-founded by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder said Wilson was “a leader in more areas of business,” Crain’s said.

Wilson is the second NFL owner to die this month, and both have been from Michigan. Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. died on March 9 at the age of 88. Crain’s said Wilson had at one point owned 2.5 percent of the Lions.

Wilson also co-founded the American Football League at the same time he founded the Bills, but the league lost $1.4 million in its first three years. The business model eventually stabilized  and the AFL and NFL merged in 1970.

He and his wife, Mary, had three daughters, two of them – Christy Wilson-Hofmann, a Bills consultant, and Edith Wilson – surviving. Another daughter, Linda Bogdan, died in 2009. She had been the NFL’s first female scout and was also an executive for the Bills.

Mary Wilson also survives.

Wilson was born on Oct. 17, 1918. He graduated from the University of Virginia and attended the University of Michigan’s law school before the he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II, where served as an officer on minesweepers in both the Pacific and Atlantic campaigns during the war.

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