A Conversation with Ramsay D. Potts
(Appeared in Bar Report, August/September 1999)
Ramsay D. Potts is a founding partner of the law firm Shaw Pittman Potts & Trowbridge. A major general in the U.S. Air Force, Potts received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Distinguished Unit Citation, the British Distinguished Flying Cross, and the French Croix de Guerre during World War II.
A 1948 graduate of the Harvard Law School, Potts has served as special assistant to the chairman of the National Security Resources Board, special assistant to the administrator of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and associate counsel to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee. Potts stepped down as managing partner of Shaw Pittman in 1986, where he is currently an active consultant on management, legislative, aviation, and contract matters.
Bar Report: Where did you grow up?
Ramsay D. Potts: I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on October
24, 1916. I was the eldest of six children, three boys and three girls.
My father was a cotton merchant, and he was a wonderful father. He taught
me how to throw a football, a baseball, and how to play golf. And my
mother was a marvelous homemaker. She helped me build a miniature golf
course around the house with little flags at every hole. We had golf
tournaments constantly, where she would give away prizes. Everyone who
participated was given the same prize so you knew you weren’t special
just because you won.
It was a happy childhood, growing up in a close, loving family.
BR: Did you attend public school in Memphis?
RDP: Yes. I went to grammar school and, early on, high school
in the Memphis public school system. I was a good student, and my father
saw to it that I studied. He had his own special chair and would sit
in it and read his books and magazines. I would take my schoolbooks and
lie on the floor in the pool of light from his lamp and study. Then I
spent my junior and senior years at an all-boys prep school, Darlington
School, in Rome, Georgia. I studied hard, but I also spent time secretly
playing cards and gambling whenever we could get away with it.
BR: Where did you go to college?
RDP: I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
where I studied economics and English, and graduated with a bachelor
of science degree in commerce.
BR: When did your interest in law arise?
RDP: After college I went to work for my father in the cotton
business. I didn’t like it, and that was when I decided I wanted to be
a lawyer. I didn’t have an overriding interest in science or chemistry,
but I had a great interest in literature, language, political science,
and history. I thought those interests would tie in well with law. But
this was 1940 and war had broken out in Europe. I figured the United
States was going to get into the war sooner or later. So I took the test
to enlist in the United States Army Air Corps.
BR: Were you called to service?
RDP: Yes. I was called to training in early 1941, and sent to
flight school in Cuero, Texas, and later to Randolph and Brooks Field
near San Antonio. During the ten months of training I learned to fly
the AT-6, which was a wonderful little plane. I was scheduled to be commissioned
on December 7, 1941, but that morning the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
My commission ceremony was delayed four days. On December 11, 1941, I
was commissioned as a second lieutenant and given my wings.
BR: What was your first assignment?
RDP: I ran training exercises with army reconnaissance officers.
I was flying the O-52, a single-engine plane with an observation seat
in the back. We were supposed to fly over enemy positions so the army
observer could determine where the enemy artillery was located. This
O-52 was undoubtedly the worst airplane I’ve ever flown. It tended to
ground loop on take off and landing, which means the plane would turn
in a tight circle to the right, and it frequently developed engine trouble.
One day it broke an oil line, and spilled oil all over the windshield.
I couldn’t see anything, but I could feel that the engine was about to
sputter and quit. I had to make an emergency landing, which I was lucky
enough to do without killing either myself or the lieutenant flying with
BR: Did you ever fly in combat?
RDP: Yes, I flew many combat missions. My first mission targeted the marshalling rail yards at Lille, France, which was occupied by the Germans. By this time, I was operations officer of my squadron and had been promoted to captain. I was leading an element of three airplanes in a group formation of 24 planes. We headed out, circled around the base, and gathered in formation. We had a tail wind coming from the west, and before we knew it, we were directly over the target area, where we were attacked by German fighters. My best friend, who was flying on my left wing, was shot down. My tail gunner was in shock and wouldn’t respond. It seemed as if it took us forever to get away from France and over friendly territory again.
Although a successful mission, we sustained numerous
losses. At the base in England, the plane in front of me had to make an emergency
landing and skidded off the runway, and broke in two. Afterwards, I went back
to the Nissan hut I lived in and sat in front of the potbelly stove. I was cold,
so I put on extra clothes and eventually went to the officer’s club for a shot
of whiskey. I wasn’t frightened during the mission, but I was shaken afterward.
I wondered if I could keep doing this. Just then Tommy Taylor, an officer from
another group who was in my graduating class and on the same mission, walked
in. I said, "Tommy, that was one hell of a mission," but he laughed
and said, "That was a piece of cake." And I thought, "If he can
do it, then I know damn well I can too." I was never in that kind of shock
BR: So that incident didn’t prevent you from flying combat?
RDP: Not at all. In fact, in November 1942 we were deployed
to North Africa.
I remember as we were approaching the African shoreline, I saw hills in the back distance that seemed higher than I thought they should be, so I called the navigator and told him. He examined the map again and realized he had been reading the altitudes in feet, whereas the heights were in meters.
When we finally landed, I was exhausted. As the
bomb doors opened below, I heard a voice say, "Captain Potts, report to
Group Operations immediately." I didn’t like the tone of the voice, so I
angrily said, "I’ll be there." The voice persisted, and now I was annoyed.
And as I came out of the bomb doors, a hand tapped me on the shoulder really
hard and I swung around thinking, "who the hell
," and there was
my brother Van Dyke, who was in the 12th Air Force. It was a great surprise.
BR: You had not seen your family since you left?
RDP: No, not once. I was back and forth between England and
By 1943, I had also gone from squadron commander to group operations officer.
BR: What did you do in this position?
RDP: I was responsible for planning missions, assigning crews, deciding what squadrons flew in what order, and running training missions for the entire group. Later that year I was brought to wing headquarters to be the wing chief of staff, and in January 1944, the 453rd Bomb Group, a new group, came in. I helped with the group’s orientation and battle training. But on one of its earlier missions, its commanding officer was shot down. I received a message to report to division headquarters, which was commanded by Major General Hodges, a salty, West Point type. When I entered his office, he told me he had two colonels from Washington on their way to take commands, but General Timberlake, who was my wing commanding officer, said he wanted menot one of themas the new group commander.
This was beyond my wildest dreams. I looked at
Timberlake, who was nonchalantly blowing on his fingernails, looking up at the
ceiling-like nothing was happening. Hodges continued and told Timberlake I didn’t
have the experience and was not a West Point graduate. But then he asked me, "do
you think you can do the job?" I seized the moment and said yes. He looked
at Timberlake and said, "I give him six weeks."
BR: That’s a lot of responsibility. Were you nervous?
RDP: I had a lot of trepidation because the squadron commanders
were older than I was, and many were West Pointers. I shuffled the structure
of the group and asked for a new operations officer, somebody from the
outside. Low and behold, they sent an officer from another group-a guy
named Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart, the actor, became my operations officer.
BR: Jimmy Stewart?
RDP: Yes, we hit it off very well, even though he was eight
years older than I was. He was a wonderful addition to the group and
had the same languid style as in his movies. Everyone loved him. We whipped
that group into tip-top shape and it quickly became one of the best groups
in the Air Force.
But we weren’t together long. Sometime later I became the Director of Bombing Operations for the 8th Air Force, a position I held until the end of the war.
BR: The war was almost over?
RDP: Yes, one of our last missions was against a German force of 30,000 holed-up in the Gironde Peninsula near Bordeaux. General de Gaulle wanted to capture the Germans by combining land, sea, and air operations, and asked the 8th Air Force to drop heavy bombs there. But the French ground forces didn’t go in as they were supposed to. That night we were told to stand down, which means we weren’t to fly any combat missions the next day.
Later that evening I was the duty officer when I received a call from General Doyle, the American liaison with de Gaulle’s headquarters. He asked us to bomb the Germans again, and swore this time the French would go in. I said no, and he yelled, "Don’t you know there’s a war going on? Who’s in charge there?" I said that I was.
I tried to find General Doolittle for permission to schedule the mission, but I couldn’t. So I called General Partridge, the commanding general of the division that had run the mission, and asked if I sent over a field order to repeat the mission, would he provide the same lead crew and lead navigator? He said he’d do better than that, he’d lead it himself. I sent the field order, setting the mission in motion.
The next morning, I was placing the mission on the map with red ribbons when General Doolittle arrived with high-ranking RAF officers in tow. I hear him say, "Nope, we’re not flying combat today." I shuddered. Just then, he saw the ribbons on the map, and exploded. I tried to explain, but he was livid, yelling at me about everything that could go wrong. By now I was fuming, and General Anderson pulled me aside and told me to disappear, or I would be court-martialed.
But the mission was incredibly successful. The
Germans surrendered, all 30,000 of them, and General de Gaulle was overjoyed.
He awarded General Doolittle the highest French decoration, and Doolittle was
kind enough to tell General de Gaulle that I had planned the operation. So the
French awarded me a Croix de Guerre, a cross of war decoration.
BR: What did you do when the war came to an end?
RDP: I worked on the strategic bombing survey in the military
analysis division, which was headed by my boss at the 8th Air Force,
Major General Orvil Anderson. The survey analyzed the effects of our
air operations on the outcome of the war. Some of the leaders of the
survey included Franklin d’Olier, Paul Nitze, George Ball, Ken Galbraith,
Henry Alexander, and Theodore Wright. As chief of staff of the military
analysis division, I interrogated some of the surviving German leaders,
such as Keitel, Goering, Kesselring, and Jodl about the effects of our
air operations. Most of the interrogations went well, except the interrogation
of Admiral Doenitz, who was head of the German Navy. As far as he was
concerned, the German surrender was an interlude and sooner or later
the Germans would get even. Besides Doenitz, the rest seemed resigned
that the allies had won, and that the war was over.
BR: The war ended in 1945 and you got married that same year. When did you find the time to meet your wife?
RDP: [Laughing] I met radar officer Veronica Hamilton Raynor,
of the RAF Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, shortly after I returned from
Africa for the first time. My commander had ordered me to inspect the
radar station to find out how it operated. It was the station that sent
out air sea rescue when we had a plane down in the North Sea. Section
Officer Raynor was one of the officers who explained how the station
worked. I wouldn’t say there was an immediate chemistry, but I was fascinated
by women in these duties. A while later, we were both invited to a party
by Mrs. Geoffrey Colman, of the Colman mustard family. At the party,
Veronica appeared in an evening dress. She made an entirely different
BR: Were you able to see her much?
RDP: I began to see her from time to time, and had fallen in
love with her. In fact, on New Year’s Eve 1944, I was supposed to meet
her at her radar base in southern England, but I was then at an air force
headquarters in Liege, Belgium, helping to direct our air effort to stop
the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. But when I went out to the airfield,
there was a lot of snow on the runway and no one would give me clearance
to fly. I persisted and took off in the middle of a snowstorm-and flew
straight to the RAF base where she was located. I can dramatize it by
saying that when I finally got there, the base was closed due to a heavy
rainstorm. I buzzed the tower at 20 feet and they gave me a red light,
so I went around and buzzed it again until they finally gave me a green
light and I landed. She was right there waiting for me.
BR: When were you married?
RDP: We were married on December 22, 1945, after I had been
to Japan with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. Then I brought my new
wife to the United States for the first time. I had been thinking, "What
do I want to do now? I don’t want to be in the Air Force unless there’s
a war going on." (Little did I know in the not too distant future
there would be a war and then another) In the mean time, I’d interviewed
at Harvard Law School and was accepted. I began taking classes in February.
I thought whether or not I practiced law, it was excellent training.
So I brought my new bride to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
BR: Was it a difficult transition?
RDP: It was excruciatingly difficult. I was used to the war
and activities that involved action and more action, but now I was in
an environment conducive to studying. Plus I had a new bride who was
trying to get used to living in the United States, not England.
I didn’t do very well that first year, adjusting to life as a student, because I was too wrapped up reminicising about the past. But I became acclimated to my new life and did much better my second and third year. I graduated in May 1948.
BR: What did you do then?
RDP: I went back to Memphis to practice at Waring, Walker & Cox.
I was making $300 a month, plus one-third of the income generated by
the cases I was working on. I liked practicing law, but my wife did not.
She thought it was a great come down, first from being a colonel in the
Air Force to a student at Harvard Law School. Then from being a Harvard
graduate to a mere associate in a law firm that paid only $300 a month.
But I didn’t care, I was determined. I wanted to prove I could be a lawyer.
BR: Do you remember your first case?
RDP: I’ll never forget it. A young, attractive woman in Memphis
had been in an automobile accident. It was another man’s fault, so she
sued him for damages, which included having her teeth knocked out. My
partner told me the secret of success in this case would be to have the
right expert witness.
Our expert was a noted dentist in Memphis, and he turned out to be a very good witness for us. My partner also said our strategy was that not only did the woman have these physical injuries, but she also had no skills. Our case was that her best hope in life was to marry a well-to-do man in Memphis, and now because of her injuries her chances were nil.
We displayed our witness in court, who dressed in sack cloth and ashes, and the jury was very sympathetic. They awarded us a $9,000 verdict. In those days in Tennessee, damage awards were very low because insurance companies had complete control. The judge said he was going to grant a remititur, which meant he’d cut back the verdict. I was incensed. We had worked hard and fought for this verdict. But my partner explained to me that in Tennessee an award for $9,000 for loss of teeth was so outrageous it would be reversed on appeal. The remititur softened it enough so that on appeal, it wouldn’t be overturned. Sure enough, the insurance company brought it up on appeal, and because the judge granted the remititur to $6,000, instead of $9,000, it wasn’t reversed.
We also did some cases for Memphis Street Railway
and I participated in some of those. But a year after I started, I was ordered
back to active duty in the air force.
BR: In what capacity?
RDP: The air force had gotten into a dispute with the navy over something called the B-36 investigation. The fight regarded the division of the budget between the different services. The navy was incensed that the air force had ordered some six engine B-36, long-range bombers. The Navy leaked information to the press, published anonymous documents attacking air force doctrine and the secretary of the air force, and lobbied on the hill. The air force thought it would be a good idea to counterattack since the navy was also maintaining that air force strategic operations in WWII were a great waste of resources. My job was to work with another colonel on the analysis of carrier task force operations in the Pacific and then to prepare the secretary and the chief of staff for appearances before Congress regarding the controversy.
After that, Stuart Symington, the first secretary of the U.S. Air Force, became chairman of the National Security Resources Board, and he asked me to go with him as his special assistant. One of my jobs was to prepare a plan to operate the government in the event of a nuclear attack by an enemy. I organized a task force and prepared a plan, but Symington was unsure of my proposal. He sent me to President Truman, a wonderful, fatherly man, who liked it and wanted it implemented immediately. From then on, it became known as the "Symington Plan," a plan to operate the U.S. government under the stress of nuclear attack.
But when Symington decided to run for senator in
Missouri, I decided to leave the government and stay in Washington.
BR: Did you already have a job?
RDP: Yes, I’d been offered a job as president of the Military Air Transport Association, an association of air carriers who provided charter and all types of cargo service. Back then, no air carrier could operate a service domestically or internationally without getting permission from the Civil Aeronautics Board. I represented carriers trying to obtain authority to fly in the United States and abroad. Some had authority to fly scheduled cargo service, such as Seaboard World Airlines. Others, like TransCarribean, American Flyers, Overseas National, and Capitol Airways were looking for different ways to fly passenger charters or scheduled service in the U.S. and abroad.
I battled the giants of the industry, airlines
like Pan Am, TWA, Eastern, and United, and I had a hell of a lot of fun.
BR: When did you found the firm?
RDP: We began as a four-man firm in 1958. The original partners were Brackley Shaw, Steuart Pittman, Charles Maechling, and me. Tim Hanlon and Marty Krall were recruited from the air force honors program. Next Ted Rogers joined us to start the tax practice, and Fox Trowbridge came with us to begin our energy practice. My brother Steve Potts, now head of the Office of Government Ethics, was our first associate.
When Brackley Shaw, our managing partner retired,
I became chairman of the management committee, which was then called the coordinating
committee because no one wanted to be managed. I was in that position for 18
years. I had many interesting clients, including the Investment Company Institute,
which consisted of mutual fund companies, its investment advisers and underwriters.
It’s hard to believe in those days mutual funds were small businesses in the
finance and investment communities. We had difficult battles with commercial
banks that wanted to move into the business and operate their own funds.
BR: Did you ever imagine the firm would expand to what it is today?
RDP: No. When we brought in Trowbridge, he brought Gerry Charnoff with him and the two of them built a substantial energy practice. Today our firm is a leader in nuclear energy. Over the years, we’ve expanded and now have three additional offices in New York, Tysons Corner, Virginia, and London with more than 300 lawyers in the four offices. Our information technology practice, banking and real estate practice, diversity counseling practice, and our corporate practice has established the firm as a leader in those fields.
Charnoff succeeded me as managing partner of the
firm in 1986, and he in turn was succeeded by Paul Mickey, who is doing an outstanding
job in taking the firm into the 21st century. As part of this transition, we
have changed the name from Shaw Pittman Potts and Trowbridge to Shaw Pittman
to give us a brand name for the future.
BR: Are you still active in the firm?
RDP: Well, I stepped aside in 1986, and became senior counsel. But by the late 1980s, I’d turned all my clients over to other partners. Currently, I serve as an ex officio member of the management committee. I still come into the office every day and assist younger partners on management, legislative, aviation, and contract matters.
I’m also quite active when it comes to pro bono
work on behalf of my alma maters, the Darlington School, the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Harvard Law School.
BR: Do you think the practice of law has changed from when you began?
RDP: Yes. There is more emphasis now on making money out of the law. I see the same degree of determination to serve the client, but with a greater emphasis on profit.
Another difference is the need to specialize. When
I began practicing, you would have a client with legislative problems, aviation
problems, and other needs, and one lawyer handled all of these problems. Today
it’s hard to do that because clients demand experts in each field of law to represent
them. The degree of specialization is much, much greater.
BR: Who were some of the most influential people in your life?
RDP: There were quite a few. In my military career, I had a particular regard for Jimmy Doolittle, Tooey Spaatz, and Orvil Anderson. But the one who stands out the most is Ted Timberlake. He promoted me to squadron commander in the 93rd Bomb Group, and then convinced General Hodges to give me the assignment as group commander. He gave me the chance to prove myself and my ability as a leader.
Stuart Symington is another. I worked for him on
the National Security Resources Board and as his executive officer when he was
secretary of the Air Force. There are public figures who stand out in my mind
as well: Winston Churchill, who was instrumental in holding the free world together,
and President Truman for his decisiveness.
BR: What are some of your hobbies today?
RDP: I’m a student of history, and love to read history and biography. I enjoy spending time with my grandchildren-all six of them. And I still play an occasional round of golf and tennis.
In the winter, I spend long weekends in a little
house I have in Florida.
BR: Would you do it all over again?
RDP: Certainly. It’s been a wonderful life, full of challenges.