Biographical Information

A. J. Gustin Priest, upon earning his law degree from the University of Idaho at the age of 24, practiced law for five years in Boise and then moved to New York City where he represented major public utility companies for another 27 years. At the age of 55 he began his teaching career at the University of Virginia Law School and took mandatory retirement when he was 70. Two years later he published the well-received, two-volume Principles of Public Utility Regulation. Priest was remarkably vigorous, despite periodic bouts of illness, until very near the end of his life. He was a I short, red-headed man whose friends and colleagues found aggressively friendly and open, loquacious and at times sesquipedalian, warm-hearted and sincere, intellectually curious and argumentative . His loyalty to certain ideas and causes was as fierce as his devotion to the utilities he served: he ardently supported the world government movement, the Unitarian church, Beta Theta Pi, his college fraternity, and he vehemently denounced the New Deal, socialism and the ethics of Richard Nixon. Although he spent two thirds of his 81 years in the East, he always identified with the West where he grew up and learned to be straightforward and honest, to love his fellow human beings, and to tell humorous anecdotes about himself and his friends.

A.J. was born the ninth of June, 1897 in Kearney, Nebraska, his mother's home town. Sue Gustin Priest, not trusting the physicians in Henderson, Kentucky where she lived with her husband, Joel Lambert Priest, had returned home to deliver her first child. The Priests had their son christened A.J. Gustin after his uncle, Albert Jasper, whose name had been supplanted by his first two initials; throughout his life, Priest insisted that his first name was "A.J." and that those letters were not, for him, the initials of other names. Soon after his birth the family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Joel worked as a newspaper journalist and where two other children, Joel, Jr. and Marianna , were born; later he went to work for Union Pacific Railroad and moved the family to Boise, Idaho, the town A. J. would call home. In the security of the closely knit and supportive family the oldest son developed into an ambitious, energetic and gregarious young man. While he studied for his bachelor and law degrees at the University of Idaho - he earned the first in 1918 and the latter in 1921 - he wrote for the college newspaper and for the Idaho Daily Statesman. He joined, Beta Theta Pi, forming an association from which he and the fraternity would benefit abundantly for the next half century.

Priest's formal education was interrupted briefly by his enlistment in the Army near the end of World War I . One of his favorite stories concerned the harassment he received from the stereotypical sergeant who, upon hearing Priest's name, "A. J.", adamantly insisted on knowing what the letters stood for. Priest under pressure coughed up "Albert" but on return to civilian life forevermore refused any appellation but "A. J."

Once admitted to the Idaho bar in 1921, A. J. became attorney and secretary for the Idaho Power Company in Boise.  Five years later he left Idaho for the greater challenges and larger financial rewards of corporate utility practice in New York City. The summer of 1926 when he moved east was doubly propitious because it was then that he met Hartwell Wyse, who would be his wife for over 50 years. Hartwell had recently graduated from Smith College, where she had studies art and become good friends with a classmate, Marianna Priest. On his way to a Beta convention that summer, A. J. stopped at the Wyse home in Toronto where his sister was visiting. Almost immediately he became infatuated with Hartwell despite the fact that she, naturally a bit cautious in view of this near-stranger's impulsiveness, did not encourage his advances.

The courtship of Hartwell and A. J. took place during the next year, about half of which she spent studying art in Paris. After seeing her off in New York harbor, Priest commenced writing her daily, although upon her request he sent her no letters for an entire month. Meantime she began receiving fresh flowers once a week, and when the month was up, she was delivered a bundle of thirty letters from him. By this time Hartwell was falling in love and was soon making plans to marry him when she returned to the states. The wedding in August was followed by a trip to Europe.

The Priests lived in a New York City apartment until after the birth of their first child, Paul Lambert, in 1930. Soon after the birth of their second child, Marianna Thayer, in 1933, the Priests built a home in Summit, New Jersey where they lived until 1952. A. J. became a commuter, Hartwell resumed her art work, and the entire family got involved in activities of the Summit community.

A. J.'s timing when he left the Wild West for Wall Street in 1926 was impeccable. He joined at its zenith the Electric Bond and Share Company, a public utility holding company established in '1905 under the effective leadership of Sidney z. Mitchell, who was still a powerful figure on Wall Street. Mitchell had shoved Electric Bond and Share to the top of the heap of holding companies which thrived during the twenties: in 1929 it, with two other companies, generated 45 percent of the nation's electric energy. A. J. quickly adapted to the fast pace and rigorous demands of working for this aggressive, successful company, and he also wasted no time in making friends. Sydney R. Inch, the president of Electric Bond and Share, drew special respect and admiration from A. J. for his scrupulous honesty and superb administrative ability; Inch, an English immigrant with only a technical school education, maintained an affectionate interest in Priest long after their working relationship had ended .

With the advent of the New Deal and the passage of the Public Utilities Holding Company Act in 1935, EBS and brethren met a relentless foe which would not be satisfied until they were emasculated. The direct effect on Priest was an immediate move to a law firm newly established by two former law vice presidents at EBS, Frank A. Reid and Samuel W. Murphy; EBS was, of course, their major client. The holding companies, however, had fought bitterly in Washington against the legislation, and they were determined to resume their fight in court. Sections 4(a) and 5 of the act required the companies to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and refusal to do so ultimately provided EBS the opportunity in 1938 to present its objections to the Supreme Court (303 U. S. 419 (1938)). (EBS was represented by T. D. Thacher and John F. MacLane, with Priest and Frank Reid on the brief.) The Court decided against them, and within weeks Priest was mired in the details of registering the companies within the EBS group; the Act was, henceforth, rather peacefully accepted.

At the time Priest staunchly opposed the Holding Company Act, as well as most other New Deal proposals and their creators: "I could feel much happier about regulation, as practiced by the New Deal," he wrote in 1940, "if I did not believe that a large part of its motivation is political." Resentments and personalities faded with the years, however, and in the late sixties he called the Holding Company Act "a major legislative achievement of the new Deal" and admitted it was "patently (hindsight never fails) in the public interest."

In March of 1939 A. J. had that experience which he called the "apogee of any lawyer's career"--arguing a case before the Supreme Court. This time at variance with the Federal Power Commission over a question concerning the Federal Power Act, Priest, representing the Pacific Power and Light Company, had been praised after his appearance before the Ninth Circuit for presenting "the ablest and most dangerous" argument against the FPC's case. Nonetheless, he was suitably humbled and nervous when he appeared at the Supreme Court. Afterwards in a letter to his family he described the heavy barrage of questions he had had to field:

I had the feeling that all of the Justices, except perhaps Black, were honestly attempting to clarify their own minds and to throw light on the problems we were presenting and I may be unfair to the Honorable Hugo when I suggest that he seemed to be harrying and heckling me a little. Perhaps my knowledge of his strong anti-utility bias makes me unjust to the gentlemen and I probably should at least give him the benefit of the doubt. Of course I attempted to be scrupulously courteous and deferential in responding to all of his questions. The Justice whose questions most appealed to me was Frankfurter. Every suggestion he made was illuminating and his quick, keen mind obviously had cut through immediately to the essential bases of the contentions made by both sides.

Frankfurter's opinion was even more appealing when, speaking for a unanimous court, he sustained all the major points of Priest's argument.

To a marked degree the New Deal and Priest became awfully familiar, as opponents are wont to do. His law firm, called Reid and Priest since early 1937, represented major utilities throughout the country, and A. J. locked horns regularly at the Securities and Exchange and Federal Power Commissions on his clients' behalf. Later appearances at the Supreme Court provided the ultimate challenge to his legal knowledge, adversarial talents, vocabulary and wit, all of which he took pride in keeping in top form. Driving himself to the maximum of his endurance in New York for over twenty years finally exacted its toll on his health, however, and after a serious illness in the early fifties, he began considering a change of pace and scenery.

The practice of law had not been Priest's sole obsession while at Wall Street. There had always been his involvement in his beloved Beta Theta Pi, for which he logged many miles visiting its chapters. His intense devotion, boundless energy and affability made him an obvious candidate for Beta's national presidency, the office he held from 1951 to 1954. Although he became disenchanted with leadership of the fraternity during the sixties, he never actually gave up his interest and involvement in Beta. The chapter at the University of Virginia both annoyed and worried A. J. for years because it organization and activities never met his own standards for fraternity life; finally in 1970 he was instrumental in having the Virginia chapter dissolved. Such an action after so many years was not too surprising: a significant facet of A. J.'s character was reflected in his loyalty and reverence for the brotherhood of his fraternity.

Another passion which first claimed Priest's time and energy in 1939 was also to possess him until the end of his life. This passion was his concern for worldwide peace manifested in his involvement in a movement initially called "Union Now," after a book of that name by Clarence Streit. Priest along with Streit and others formed Federal Union, Inc. in the early forties and in 1947 merged with other groups to establish United World Federalists. The broad purpose of UWF was to bring about a world government organization committed to the cause of peace and powerful enough to prevent further wars. Its members lobbied for years for the strengthening of the United Nations, described by Priest in 1948 was "flaccid and flabby," and for strict control of the development of the atomic bomb. Other leaders of the movement included Grenville Clark, Alan Cranston, Norman Cousins, Stingfellow Barr, Cass Canfield, Robert Oppenheimer, to name just a few. The organization honored Priest in 1964 by naming him "Federalist of the Year."

The University of Virginia Law School had an opening for a professor in the early fifties, and Joseph Hartfield, friend of Joel Priest, Sr. and an active alumnus of the Virginia Law School, asked A. J. if he would be interested in teaching there. After the interview and subsequent offer, Priest was uncharacteristically deliberative but at last decided to move to Charlottesville to begin at 55 a second career. It was a difficult decision to make because, while the pressures of New York practice had begun, after 30 years, to wear him down physically, at the same time he continued to thrive intellectually and emotionally on those superhuman demands. He and Hartwell loved the cultural offerings of the city: more than once they went in to New York on a Saturday and consumed three Broadway plays and dinner before returning to Summit late at night.

But, as A. J. was to quote later, "Teaching hath charms to sooth the Wall Street breast," and he was not at Virginia long before he knew he had made the right decision. As a lawyer he had taken great pride in his interaction with clients and in his preparation and performance in courts and at hearings. He also knew utility law as well as he knew his family. When he entered teaching, therefore, he aimed to transmit as much of his own expertise as possible to his students. Demanding but humorous, boastful of his own accomplishments but interested in those of others, always opinionated but yet willing to admit error, Priest was stimulating in the classroom.

During the spring semester of 1953 Priest taught his first courses-Business Associations and Public Utility Regulation--at Virginia. He later regularly taught Corporation Law, a required course for second year law students, and occasionally offered an advanced course called either Corporate Securities or Securities Regulation. His classes in Legal Draftsmanship, Parliamentary Law and Professional Ethics drew directly upon the Wall Street experience; in fact, for the latter course he brought in many of his lawyer friends who were currently practicing. A sincere person with moral integrity, A. J. tried to impart the significance of high moral standards among lawyers to his students. He wanted them to be well prepared for practice and to secure challenging, high-paying jobs, and so, to this end, he wrote a great many job recommendations for those he had taught.

Although grading exams were always a loathsome task for A. J., he enjoyed most of his professorial duties and regretted the move only when he considered the reduction of his income. To minimize the shock to his budget and to keep his hat in the ring of public utilities law, Priest did a considerable amount of consulting work during the fifties and early sixties. In 1961 and 1962 he organized the defense of a substantial percentage of the electric utility industry in regard to a challenge to the Electric Companies' Advertising Program (ECAP) made by the FPC on a tax matter.

Teaching was good for Priest. The first thing the academic life gave him was his health which, very poor in New York, improved tremendously in Virginia. The later years of teaching provided him the time to begin writing a book on public utilities regulation which, with his relentless vigor, he was able to complete a couple of years after retirement. A dedicated Unitarian, Priest had a bit more time to devote to the church in Charlottesville than he had had before, although he was never to admire a minister as he did A. Powell Davies of his Summit church. Academia with its more objective vantage than c Wall Street’s was possibly responsible, at least in part, for Priest's turning away from a conservative political view. In 1972 he wrote George McGovern, whom he warmly supported, that his parents and Woodrow Wilson had made him a Democrat, but what he did not tell McGovern was that Franklin Roosevelt had transformed him into a Republican. It was Adlai Stevenson who drew him back to the Democratic Party. The last cause to which Priest, drawn to a variety of causes over the years, lent his energy was that of getting Richard Nixon removed from the Presidency after the Watergate scandal. By this time his age and deteriorating health had limited him to letter-writing an occasional speech-making of which Nixon's unethical behavior was invariably the subject.

A. J. Priest died after an illness in March of 1978.


List of Courses Taught


Business Associations

Public Utility Regulation

Parliamentary Law

State and Local Taxation

Corporation Law

Corporate Securities or Securities Regulation

Legal Draftsmanship

Professional Ethics

Faculty Presence: 
1953 to 1978