Bill Lane, who built Sunset magazine into an icon of Western living, helped found the town of Portola Valley and donated millions to Stanford University and environmental causes from open space preservation to restoration of Yosemite National Park, has died.
With family members at his side, Lane died of respiratory failure at 7:30 pm on Saturday at Stanford Hospital. He was 90.
Lane and his brother, Mel, who died in 2007, ran Lane Publishing from the late 1950s until 1990. Mel Lane oversaw Sunset books, while his brother was publisher of Sunset magazine. From their Menlo Park headquarters, the brothers turned their father Laurence’s 1928 investment of $65,000 into one of the nation’s leading regional publishing companies.
“He saw incredible possibility in the West. It was a can-do place. That’s what Sunset stood for — build your own house, make your own food, hike a trail,” Bill Lane’s daughter, Sharon Lane of Nevada City, said Monday. “He saw himself and the magazine as an ambassador for the West.”
When the brothers sold their company in 1990 to Time Warner for $225 million, they used the proceeds to become two of the most significant conservation philanthropists in the West. They supported a broad variety of causes, from rebuilding the outdoor amphitheater and other facilities at Yosemite’s Glacier Point to providing millions to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, in Palo Alto.
A 1942 graduate of Stanford, Bill Lane donated $5
million to endow the Bill Lane Center for the American West there in 2005.”Businessman, philanthropist, diplomat, Lincoln scholar, and irrepressible horseman to the last, Bill Lane enriched countless lives with his remarkably creative generosity,” said Stanford historian David Kennedy, a co-director of the center.
The Lanes were both Republicans in the Teddy Roosevelt model of conservation. Mel Lane was the first chairman of the California Coastal Commission and Bill Lane used Sunset magazine to advocate for protection of West’s natural heritage. Three years before the Nixon administration banned the pesticide DDT in 1972, for example, Bill Lane banned all DDT advertising in Sunset and urged readers not to use it in their gardens. It cost Sunset millions in advertising. Pesticide maker Ortho started a book series to compete with Sunset.
“There’s no magazine in the country, even National Geographic, that has done as much of what I would call participatory environmental coverage,” Lane said in a 1990 Mercury News interview. “It’s not the sort of risk they teach you at business school, but it’s always been a very, very risky business to refuse major categories of advertising.”
Laurence William “Bill” Lane Jr. was born Nov. 7, 1919 in Des Moines, Iowa, the first son of Laurence William Lane Sr. and the former Ruth Bell. His father was an ad salesman for Better Homes and Gardens and Progressive Farmer magazine in the 1920s when his travels convinced him that the West needed a magazine that concentrated on home, garden, food and travel.
In 1928, Laurence Lane raised money to purchase the Southern Pacific railroad literary magazine Sunset, and the family moved to California, eventually settling in Palo Alto.
The family first visited Yosemite when Bill Lane was 9, a trip he said changed his life. As a teenager and college student in the 1930s, Lane worked in the Sierra back country on pack crews doing trail work.
During World War II, Lane was a Navy gunnery officer on a troop ship that carried soldiers to the Battle of Iwo Jima and other Pacific Theater action, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He was also an aide to Adm. Carlton Wright, commandant of the 12th Naval District. His brother also served in the Navy.
As civilians, the brothers returned to Sunset, assuming full management in 1959. Both were also active in government. In 1975-1976, Lane was ambassador-at-large in the Pacific and commissioner general to Japan, and from 1985 to 1989, he was ambassador to Australia and Nauru.
“He is gregarious and he does like that life, which is quite social. He likes to meet new people,” Mel Lane said in an interview in the 1990s with the Mercury News.
Bill Lane and his wife, the former Donna Jean Gimbel, were married April 16, 1955, and had two daughters, Sharon Lane and Brenda Munks, and a son, Robert Lane.
When sprawl moved across San Mateo County, Lane helped lead efforts to incorporate Portola Valley as a town in 1964 to protect its rural charm. A resident there until the end of his life, he was elected its first mayor, donated money for its Town Center and regularly dressed as Santa at Christmas at Ladera Shopping Center.
An honorary state and national park ranger, Lane also served on the boards of the California State Parks Foundation, the Commonwealth Club, Pacific Gas & Electric, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Yosemite Fund, the Hoover Institution and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
“His legacy is really a public legacy,” said Audrey Rust, president of the Peninsula Open Space Trust. “He appreciated nature, and enjoyed the way you feel and the freedom you have in the out of doors. He wanted the spectacular places of the West available to everyone.”