A Man of the West

Photo: Ron Lewis

L. W. "Bill" Lane, '42, will be remembered for a multitude of legacies, one of which is less known than the others: his booming voice. "Whenever we had reunions, he would get up on the atrium of the Y2E2 building, often wearing his Smokey the Bear hat," recalls David Kennedy, '63, director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West and history professor emeritus, "and in a wooly, full-throated, booming roar, he'd call: "Let the fire fall!'"

The firefall was a longstanding Yosemite tradition (discontinued in 1968) of pushing burning embers off Glacier Point to the valley floor. During his early summers as a guide at the national park, Lane had the duty of calling to all of the camps below to announce the spectacle. It was one of many memories that he cherished and loved to relive at every opportunity.

Now someone else will have to share those stories. Lane died on July 31 after a brief illness. He was 90 years old.

Lane was a philanthropist, an ambassador, a mayor, a member of five presidential administrations, a naval officer, and an honorary national and state park ranger. But he is best known for his 40-year stint as publisher of Sunset magazine, purchased by Lane's father, Laurence, from the Southern Pacific Railway Company in 1928. Bill took over as publisher in 1950 and along with his late brother Mel, '44, turned the ailing publication into an icon, conveying in its pages a particular Western sensibility and lifestyle.

"His appreciation for the ways the West was topographically and culturally different supported the business model of the magazine, but it was also just something he genuinely felt, almost spiritually," says Bill Marken, who served as managing editor, then editor-in-chief of Sunset from 1964 until 1990, when it was sold to Time Inc. "We weren't a political magazine, but we had a secret agenda to make readers appreciate the places we loved as much as we did, by showing them the pleasures."

Like Wallace Stegner, whose writing was such a profound inspiration to Lane that he eventually endowed the Jean and Bill Lane Lecture Series at Stanford, he saw in the West unlimited opportunities. In a talk he gave to commemorate Sunset's centennial, Lane spoke of "a dynamic Western population that is more pioneering in spirit . . . where desert, wilderness, oceans, and high mountains are both an opportunity and a challenge for a different lifestyle that is in many ways predestined."

Given his ardent concern for the future of the West, his $5 million endowment to establish a study center focused on it also seemed predestined.

"In the mid-1980s I started forming the idea that Stanford needed to make itself into a better regional citizen and a more prominent center for the study of its own region," Kennedy recalls. "Bill Lane had expressed interest. Then, five or six years ago, his interest stepped up a couple of notches. He called me one Christmas morning and said, 'I'd really like to get this center going.' I remember standing next to my Christmas tree and thinking, 'This is really going to happen.'"

The center sponsors multidisciplinary research and teaching related to all kinds of Western issues.

"The first thing I think of when I think about Bill Lane is: big," says Peter Fish, '80, Sunset's editor-at-large. "He had a big voice, a big presence. He filled up any room he was in.

"I find it remarkable how many people I've run into who have met Bill Lane somehow—park rangers, mayors. And they all had that same impression of Bill as an outsized, enthusiastic figure."

Lane is survived by his wife, Donna Jean Gimbel Lane; his children, Sharon Lane, '81, Robert Lane and Brenda Lane Munks; and five grandchildren.


AMY WOLF, '93, a former travel editor at Sunset, is a communications manager at the Stanford Alumni Association.