A BINGHAM HIGH COED ROSE TO THE POST OF U.S. TREASURER
W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, June 1995
In 1953, shortly after taking office as Treasurer of the United States, Ivy Baker Priest was asked by President Eisenhower how she was enjoying her new job. She responded, "'I'm enjoying it immensely, Mr. President . . . but at the moment I'm just so overwhelmed to be here . . . I never expected to get anywhere near the White House.'" Eisenhower's face broke into a familiar grin, "'I know just how you feel,' he said. 'Neither did I.'" During her eight years as treasurer Priest dined with queens and princes, cabinet members and ambassadors, captains of industry and leaders of world thought, but through it all she never lost sight of her humble beginnings as the daughter of a poor Utah miner growing up in Bingham. On one occasion Priest was seated next to Norman Vincent Peale at a Washington, D.C., luncheon. The famous minister turned to her and said: "'Mrs. Priest, the people I have known in this world who have achieved things have all overcome some great handicap to reach their goal. I hope you won't mind my asking you . . . what was yours?'" Without hesitation she responded, "'Poverty.'" "'And now you are in charge of all that money,'" Peale said and laughed heartily.
Ivy Baker Priest was born September 7, 1905, in Kimberly, Piute County, to Clara Fernley and Orange D. Baker. Her father worked as a gold miner near Kimberly, but when the gold vein played out he moved his young family to Coalville. Following a boiler explosion there in 1912 the Baker family again moved, this time settling at Bingham Canyon where Orange obtained work in the copper mine.
Life in Bingham proved challenging. Ivy's father seemed strangely accident prone and was frequently unable to work due to injury. In an effort to meet the family's financial needs Ivy's mother opened a boarding house for miners, which boosted the family income but also brought 20 to 30 miners tramping through the Baker house each day. The mess their muddy shoes created led, in a roundabout way, to Ivy's lifelong, influential political career.
During spring runoff or when it rained hard the dirt streets and sidewalks of Bingham turned into a sloshing, muddy mess. The hungry miners were forced to track through the mire on their way to and from the Baker house and always left muddy floors behind as reminders of their presence. Ivy's mother, frustrated by perpetually filthy floors, began agitating for street improvements. She quickly found a sympathetic ear in Dr. Straupp, the family physician. He was dissatisfied with the way the Democratic incumbents were running Bingham and decided to run as a Republican for mayor. Clara promised him her full support if he committed to put down wooden sidewalks in Bingham once elected. Straupp agreed and Clara became the doctor's number one supporter. She rounded up a solid following among the foreign-born residents and even helped many to register as voters, an effort that often included establishing their citizenship. Ivy took an active interest in this campaign and became the "official errand runner" for her mother. When election time came Ivy spent the entire day at the polls, her "heart skipping with the excitement of it all." When the votes were finally tallied Clara Baker's influence had paid off. Dr. Straupp had won the election, and Ivy "felt as elated as a kingmaker" and soon determined that a career in politics would be "the ultimate in glorious achievement."
After active involvement in Bingham High School student leadership and extracurricular activities, Ivy began her public political career in 1932 as a delegate to the GOP state convention. Following her marriage in 1935 to Roy F. Priest, a wholesale furniture salesman, she remained active in politics. Even the birth of three children did not deter her. Beginning in 1944 she served for several years as Utah's Republican National Committeewoman and in 1950 ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Congresswoman Reva Beck Bosone. During Eisenhower's campaign for president Priest took charge of the women's division of the Republican National Committee and was credited with the successful drive to get out the women's vote, which totaled 52 percent of Eisenhower's victory margin.
Following her influential work in his campaign, Eisenhower personally called Priest and asked her to take over as treasurer of the United States, succeeding Truman appointee Georgia Neese Clark, the first woman to hold the post. Naturally, she accepted, but in a Deseret News interview she remarked how "overwhelmed" she felt by her appointment and commented "I can't get over the idea of seeing my signature on every United States bill."
Shortly after arriving in Washington Priest submitted her signature to the Treasury to be used in printing all U.S. bills. To ensure that her name was legible and in her best hand she wrote it 30 times and sent all 30 to the Treasury. They chose the first one she had written. Back in Utah Priest became quite a celebrity, especially in Bountiful where she had been living. Bountiful businessmen and the South Davis Chamber of Commerce secured a special shipment of the first dollar bills printed with Priest's name and distributed them to local businesses to give customers as change in the Bountiful, Centerville, and North Salt Lake areas. In addition, a Salt Lake Tribune editorial commented that "all Utahns will read with pride and pleasure the signature 'Ivy Baker Priest' on their paper money."
After her eight years in national office Priest continued her political career in California where she successfully ran for state treasurer in 1966 and again in 1970, becoming the first woman elected to a statewide office there and serving alongside Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Priest's illustrious political career ended June 23, 1975, when she died of cancer. Such dignitaries as Dr. William Banowsky, president of Pepperdine University, Ronald Reagan, and Art Linkletter, attended her funeral.
See: Ivy Baker Priest, Green Grows Ivy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958); biographical clipping files, Utah State Historical Society Library; Beehive History 17.