Wilbur D. "Woody" Preston Jr., special counsel during S&L crisis

Wilbur D. Preston delivers his report on Savings and Loans to a joint session of the Maryland State Legislature.
Wilbur D. Preston delivers his report on Savings and Loans to a joint session of the Maryland State Legislature. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Wilbur D. "Woody" Preston Jr., a retired partner in the Baltimore law firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston who was Maryland's special counsel during the 1985 savings and loan crisis, died Monday of complications from Alzheimer's disease at Gilchrist Hospice in Towson.

He was 90.

Mr. Preston's yearlong investigation into the causes of the savings and loan crisis that swept Maryland in the mid-1980s resulted in the publication of the highly acclaimed Preston Report, which was a thorough and detailed analysis of the debacle.

The report resulted in the redrafting of the state's thrift laws and regulations, and it affected civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions against people responsible for the crisis.

The son of a businessman and a mother who was secretary to Maryland Gov. Harry W. Nice, Wilbur Day Preston Jr. was born in Baltimore and raised in Forest Park.

After graduating in 1940 from Forest Park High School, he began his college studies at what was then Western Maryland College — now McDaniel College — until being drafted into the Army in 1942.

He was trained as an infantryman and served as a captain during the occupation of Japan. After being discharged, he returned to Western Maryland College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1946 in both English and history.

Mr. Preston earned a degree in 1949 from the University of Maryland School of Law, and began his career working for two years for a small firm. In 1951, he joined what became Whiteford, Taylor & Preston and was named a partner in 1954.

"Woody was with the firm for 50 years, and he was the firm. He embodied it," said Ward B. Coe III, former managing partner with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, who is now a partner in the firm of Gallagher Evellius & Jones.

"There was not a major case in Maryland that he wasn't one of the lawyers. He was a terrific lawyer and an advocate for his clients," he said. "He was called on time and time again because of the level of his importance and because he was so respected and people knew he would do a good job."

During Mr. Preston's tenure as chairman of the firm, he led it through several mergers that turned it from a defense litigation firm to a well-rounded business law firm.

Working in the commercial litigation and government affairs section, Mr. Preston represented a number of businesses in major commercial litigation as well as handling government affairs.

Mr. Preston had served as counsel in the successful national antitrust litigation by the industrial construction sector against the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and National Electrical Contractors Association.

He was also counsel for the principal parties in the Independent Oil and the Electrical Construction national antitrust cases, and co-counsel to Hughes Aircraft Co. in the successful defense of the ownership of its patents for communication satellites.

Mr. Preston was senior outside counsel to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in its merger with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and in the defense of the resulting shareholder litigation.

During the 1970s, Mr. Preston led Western Maryland College through the dissolution of its relationship with the Methodist Church, as the college transitioned to a private independent institution of higher learning.

In 1975, he carried on delicate negotiations with the American Civil Liberties Union, resulting in the college being removed from the suit over state aid to private church-related institutions.

After Mr. Preston's work on the savings and loan crisis, Congress named him counsel to the bipartisan National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement, created to investigate the national savings and loan crisis.

In 1993, the commission's report, "Origins and Causes of the S&L Debacle: A Blueprint for Reform," was released to President Bill Clinton and Congress.

On the anniversary of the savings and loan crisis, Mr. Preston warned in a 1987 op-ed page piece in The Baltimore Sun that "over time, the state's tough regulatory scheme will be diluted."

"Neither the state of Maryland nor the federal government can assure us that all our investments are safe. In the end, we have to take care of ourselves," he wrote.

Mr. Preston had been president of the Maryland State Bar Association and had been president of the Bar Association of Baltimore City. From 1981 to 1983, he was president of the Maryland Bar Foundation.

Mr. Preston was the recipient in 2004 of the H. Vernon Eney Endowment Fund Award, presented by the Maryland Bar Foundation to an individual who has worked to improve government and the administration of justice.

He had served on the board of Western Maryland College in 1967 and was chairman from 1971 to 1982.

The former longtime resident of The Meadows neighborhood of Baltimore County, Mr. Preston had lived at the Blakehurst retirement community in Towson since 2004.

He enjoyed reading and golfing and was an Orioles fan. He was a member of the Baltimore Country Club, Center Club and the Bear Paw's Country Club in Naples, Fla., where he had a second home.

Mr. Preston was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday in Baker Chapel on the campus of McDaniel College in Westminster.

Surviving are his wife of 21 years, the former Lucinda West; four sons, Douglas D. Preston and Bruce H. Preston, both of Baltimore, Robert W. Preston of Sparks, and Richard M. Preston of Boston; two stepsons, Mark H. Whiteford of Portland, Ore., and John Whiteford of Taiwan; a stepdaughter, Peyton Whiteford of Sherwood Forest; three grandchildren; and 11 stepgrandchildren. His wife of 44 years, the former May Honemann, died in 1989.