Wilbur D. “Woody” Preston Jr., a founder of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP and the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau’s Equal Justice Council, died Monday at age 90.
A cause of death was not listed for Preston, who was also instrumental in investigating the savings and loan scandal in Maryland in the 1980s. Known for his commitment to Legal Aid and to making Whiteford into a pre-eminent regional firm, Preston was also remembered as a humorous, hard-working lawyer who had the respect of all who worked with him or worked across from him in court.
“He was universally regarded as a true gentleman and a wonderful lawyer,” said Martin T. Fletcher, managing partner at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston. “The phrase I hear people use over and over when referring to him is that he had a gentlemanly quality that you don’t find too often today.”
A 1944 graduate of Western Maryland College — now McDaniel College — Preston later chaired the school’s board of trustees. The school’s baseball field is named for Preston, who played first base for the Green Terror in the 1940s.
A memorial service will be held at the college on Thursday afternoon.
A World War II veteran, Preston received his law degree in 1949 from what is now the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. He also served as president of the Bar Association of Baltimore City as well as the Maryland State Bar Association, and was a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Preston was also a member of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and was a trustee of the Client Security Trust Fund.
Savings and loan crisis
Ward B. Coe III, former managing partner at Whiteford and currently a partner at Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP in Baltimore, worked with Preston for about 30 years and knew him through his father.
Coe was working as a prosecutor when he got the offer to join Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.
“He came down to see me and said I should apply with his firm,” Coe said. “I couldn’t pass that up. If a guy of his stature asks if you want a job, you’d be crazy not to accept.”
Their work included one of the keystones of Preston’s career, an investigation of the savings and loan crisis that hit Maryland and the country in the mid-1980s. Preston was appointed by the governor to form a special counsel’s office, which he headed, to investigate the crisis. The months of investigation led to a 457-page report on the causes of the crisis.
The report, which Coe was the primary author on, led to a number of criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits. They wound up working together for the next three decades until Coe left for Gallagher Evelius & Jones.
“Woody was the kind of lawyer, who, if you met him and needed a lawyer, you hoped it would be him,” Coe said. “There was a time in his career when he was involved in every major piece of litigation relating to public interest.”
Andrew J. Graham, a principal and co-founder of Baltimore-based Kramon & Graham P.A., had a different perspective of the investigation. Representing some of the S&Ls being scrutinized, Graham said he disagreed with Preston on issues but unfailingly respected him as a person and a lawyer.
“I might have worked against him in some cases, but I always knew what he said was the truth — you never had to doubt his integrity,” Graham said. “He was a worthy adversary and a great guy who always saw the humorous side of things — he will be missed.”
“The bright side, if there is one,” Graham added, “is that I’ve had the privilege of knowing him.”
While his legal specialty at the firm was complex commercial litigation, Preston also undertook with vigor the cause of providing legal help for the indigent through the Legal Aid Bureau.
Preston was instrumental in securing not only a headquarters for Legal Aid, but also in raising awareness of the organization in the legal community. Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., executive director of Maryland Legal Aid, said fundraising for the bureau in 1996 was around $5,000.
Founded in 1997 with Preston as its first chairman, the Equal Justice Council now generates more than $750,000 a year from various foundations, law firms and individuals.
“I think lawyers coming up behind him, chronologically, would see from his example that you could be an excellent attorney with a profitable firm and still give back in a serious way to the legal community and the community in which you live and work,” said Graham, who now co-chairs the council.
Decatur H. Miller, partner emeritus at DLA Piper LLP, also worked with Preston for years on the Equal Justice Council.
“He was a true believer in the need for legal services for poor people,” said. “He didn’t just pay lip service to that notion either, he put a lot of work into it.”
Miller got his start with the EJC after speaking with Preston about fundraising for the organization. He said he doubted anyone but someone with Preston’s reputation could have achieved the response he got from the legal community.
“He went around to the leading law firms and raised a lot of money, mainly because people respected him so much,” Miller said. “It was an amazing soft sell that everyone, including me, responded to.”
Joseph, of Maryland Legal Aid, met Preston when he took over as executive director of the organization in 1996. New to the area, Joseph said he leaned on Preston to help him get in touch with the legal community.
“When I think of Woody, I think of his caring and his commitment and his ability to move people with a dose of humor …,” Joseph said. “He was the kind of guy who worked and played well with others.”
Joseph recalled one incident, early in his tenure, when he had a big speech to give to potential donors. He said that he and Preston were very anxious to make a good impression.
“I have an accent and I tend to talk too fast at times,” Joseph said. “And, Woody really wanted this talk to go well so we worked out a hand signal he would flash me if I started to talk too fast. It was pretty funny actually, and we laughed about it later for sure.”
Frederick S. Koontz, a partner at Whiteford, met Preston in the early 1980s. He summed up the feelings of many who said Preston would be missed.
“He was an extraordinary individual and knowing him has enhanced my life tremendously,” Koontz said. “He was a giant, no question about it.”
Thursday’s memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. at the Big Baker Chapel at McDaniel College, 2 College Hill, Westminster. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorial contributions be made to McDaniel College or the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Inc., 500 E. Lexington Street, Baltimore 21202.