April 01, 2018 Feature

Eason Balch – In Memoriam

M. Stanford Blanton

On April 14, 2018, our profession, this Section, and the electric utility industry lost one its greatest lawyers, leaders, thinkers, storytellers, and personalities when Samuel Eason Balch Sr. died peacefully at his home in Birmingham, Alabama. Eason’s 98 years and six months enriched the lives of all of us who had the great fortune to know him. His accomplishments were too many to name in this short remembrance, but above all he was what his generation would call a “class act.” His life embodied the principles that his generation held dear and a warmth, kindness, and grace that he shared with so many of us in this Section.

Eason was born in Madison, Alabama, then a small farming community in North Alabama near Huntsville, on September 5, 1919. From his earliest years and continuing throughout his life, Eason found joy in work and being active. As a child, he milked cows and tended chickens on the family farm. Soon, he was “jerking soda” at the local drug store and delivering prescriptions, dry cleaning, and newspapers all over town. Eason’s work did not distract him from his studies, as he graduated as valedictorian of Madison High School in 1936 and headed to the University of Alabama. It will surprise no one who knew him that at the university Eason distinguished himself academically as well as socially. He was a fixture in a variety of campus fraternity and political activities.

Shortly after his graduation in 1941, Eason entered the U.S. Army but was rejected for officer’s training because he only weighed 111 pounds (that is not a misprint). Soon however, his industriousness, intellectual horsepower, and obvious leadership qualities showed through and he was accepted into Officer Training Corps and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. It was at OTC in Richmond that he met the love of his life, the vivacious Elizabeth “Betsy” Brock. Eason and Betsy were married in 1943 and Eason soon shipped out to Europe as a Captain, and commanded an ordinance company, eventually commanding a captured Daimler Benz truck factory. Eason attained the rank of Major before leaving military service and began a legal career at the University of Virginia that would profoundly impact many lawyers that followed him, including yours truly.

As he neared graduation from UVa in 1948, his law school dean received a letter from William Logan Martin, the senior partner of a law firm called Martin, Turner and McWhorter in Birmingham. “Judge” Martin, the brother of Alabama Power Company President Thomas W. Martin and whose firm specialized in electric utility law, inquired of the dean whether there were any Alabama natives among the third year class who might be interested in joining the Firm. The dean showed the letter to Eason, who had never heard of the Firm, but was sufficiently in need of a position that he asked around and learned about the Firm and especially Judge Martin’s background as a West Point graduate and his reputation as a leader of the Alabama bar. Eason joined the Firm as an associate in 1948 as the eleventh lawyer and in 1962, at the age of 42, became the Chairman and Managing Partner—a position he held until his retirement in 1988.

With his close friend and colleague Jack Bingham at his side, Eason not only led but built what eventually became Balch & Bingham into the full service Firm it is today. He had a keen eye for talent and a bold vision for what the Firm could be. Eason was a strong, courageous, and charismatic leader. He loved practicing law as much as anyone I have ever known. He loved his Firm, and he continued to be involved and active in our lives after his retirement. He loved visiting with the younger lawyers, telling them stories, and impressing upon all of us the importance of our clients and the importance of our work in helping them provide better lives for their customers and the communities they serve.

I marvel at the vision, the tenacity, and the determination Eason displayed as the leader of the Firm for 26 years. Maintaining a successful Firm can sometimes be frustrating. Building one from what we would now call a boutique electricity Firm into the Firm he retired from in 1988 requires an extraordinary leader. That is especially true when you consider that Eason was a very active practicing lawyer during his tenure as leader of the Firm. He was no full-time administrator. Among his most noteworthy accomplishments was leading the legal team in the licensing of the Joseph M. Farley Nuclear Plant, including litigating the now anachronistic antitrust conditions of the license. While some war stories might be judged as apocryphal, there is record evidence that Eason cross-examined one expert witness—an economist who has become known as “that poor SOB” over the years at Balch—for 30 full hearing days. An accomplished legislative counsel, Eason was also a fixture in Washington, D.C., throughout his career and served as Chairman of the Edison Electric Institute Legal Committee.

Of course, no remembrance of Eason would be complete without an acknowledgment of his affection for the Public Utility, Communications and Transportation Section, now the Infrastructure and Regulated Industry Section, of the American Bar Association. I have received many lovely notes from our membership remembering Eason’s love of life, his gregarious personality, and his wit. He was always “jam up, jelly tight, and sitting on ready,” “ambi-drinxterous,” and ready for fun.

I probably got to know Eason and Betsy after his retirement better than I did when he was running the Firm. As we travelled together to Section Council and EEI meetings during those years throughout the 1990s and 2000s, I came to the conclusion that I had never seen two people enjoy each other’s company more than Eason and Betsy Balch. She thought he was the funniest human she had ever met and he thought she was the most lovely. They both may have been right. Eason and Betsy were a model for a couple during a hectic legal career, and especially during retirement. Many of the notes I have received from our Section members invariably mention “Eason and Betsy” as if you can’t think of one without the other. In many ways that is absolutely true. I am sure they are having a wonderful reunion.

I heard Eason say once that writing a brief is like a dog trying to find a place to lie down—you have to circle around the area two or three times before you find just the right spot. Writing this has been a little like that for me but I hope I got somewhere close to the right spot in sharing my memories of Mr. Balch.

Rest in peace, Eason Balch. You were one of a kind.

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M. Stanford Blanton

M. Stanford Blanton (sblanton@balch.com) is a partner in the Birmingham, Alabama, office of Balch & Bingham LLP.