Cover Story - August 4, 2010

Bill Lane, publisher, philanthropist, and Portola Valley's biggest fan, dies at 90

by Dave Boyce

Portola Valley's first mayor, Bill Lane, when contributing his insights at one of the many, many Town Council meetings he attended, would reaffirm what the regulars there already knew: that his cheerful and invigorating spirit inhabited the room. His actual presence was simply a living and breathing manifestation of it.

Now his spirit, and the collective memories of his fellow citizens, will have to do. Mr. Lane, 90, died Saturday, July 31, surrounded by his family at Stanford Hospital. He had been in a coma and died of respiratory failure, according to a spokeswoman for his office.

In addition to being a former mayor and member of the first Town Council, he was also the former co-publisher of Sunset magazine, a former ambassador to Australia and Nauru, an active philanthropist, a longtime and devoted environmentalist, and perhaps Portola Valley's most ardent fan. Not to mention a role he took much pride and joy in: playing the part of Santa for 55 years, first at Sunset magazine and, since 1990, at the Ladera shopping center.

Mr. Lane's partner at Sunset was his brother Mel, who died in 2007 at the age of 85 and who co-founded the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST).

Despite his age, Bill Lane regularly and reliably drove himself to town meetings and frequently spoke, usually during the public comment period. He invariably had a good word for the Town Council and the town staff.

"On some quiet evenings when the council agenda was light, Bill would often be the only member of the audience other than the local Almanac reporter," Mayor Steve Toben said in an e-mail. "He would frequently take the floor to express his pride in the democratic process and in the dedication of the town's staff and its volunteer officials. ... His joyous spirit was infectious."

Longtime councilman and former mayor Ted Driscoll noted that while there were many people involved in Portola Valley's incorporation, Mr. Lane was unique in his ongoing commitment. He gave "more than half a century of support to this town," he said. "We will sorely miss him."

"I'm really heartbroken right now," Councilwoman Maryann Derwin said in a phone interview. "It's a profound loss. I just don't know how we're going to manage the Town Council. He was a beacon."

Mr. Lane inspired her and regularly brought the discussion back to the essentials of democratic government, Ms. Derwin said.

"It just felt honorable to do the work when he was there. It doesn't usually feel like an honor," she said. "I hope we can continue to do that, but without his example, his belief in it."

Mr. Lane, a big fan of The Almanac, often added to his comments a good word for this newspaper along with a nod in this reporter's direction. In personal greetings, his smile was a constant, along with a firm handshake and kudos.

Mr. Lane had a kinship with the media milieu, having been the publisher of Sunset, and having worked his way up from selling the magazine door to door during the early years of the Great Depression, according to histories of the magazine and a curricula vitae that Mr. Lane provided to The Almanac.

Mr. Lane received a bachelor's degree in journalism from Stanford University in 1942. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he served as flag lieutenant and aide to the commandant of the 12th Naval District, based in San Francisco, and as the gunnery and communications officer aboard a troop transport ship in the Pacific, according to his CV.

He married musician, horticulturist and interior designer Donna Jean Gimbel in 1955, and the couple have three adult children — two daughters and a son.

Mr. Lane liked to find occasions for mirth. On July 7, this reporter was securing a bicycle to a flagpole outside the Historic Schoolhouse. Mr. Lane, who was on his way inside for a Planning Commission meeting, noted aloud that if someone were to steal the flagpole, that same person might very well make off with the bicycle then being attached to it.

Conservation commitment

As an environmentalist, Mr. Lane had few peers in his 20 years of active support for POST as well as for national parks and conservation causes around the country, Audrey Rust, the chief executive of POST, told The Almanac.

"His contributions to conservation and the appreciation and joy of nature are innumerable," Ms. Rust said. "He was really a remarkable man who put his efforts into his belief system. He was a conservationist of great stature."

It began with the encouragement of his parents to enjoy the outdoors and the Western way of life, whether in the wilderness or in a backyard, she said.

In Yosemite National Park, Mr. Lane had the honor, on several occasions, to MC the fire-fall, an evening spectacle involving a bonfire being shoved off the cliff at the top of Glacier Point. "That was a great moment for him," Ms. Rust said.

A philanthropist

Councilman Driscoll, an entrepreneur and a scientist, recalled a chance encounter some years ago with Mr. Lane and his brother Mel in a Menlo Park restaurant. Mr. Driscoll had been on his way out after making a pitch to another scientist about an idea for detecting abandoned or forgotten land mines. He stopped by their table to say hello, not to continue his pitch.

After a 15-second summary of why he was there that day, Mr. Driscoll said that Bill Lane took out a business card and wrote on the back, "I commit $10,000," and handed it to him.

"I was blown away," Mr. Driscoll said. "It was breathtaking when it happened. He spent his life giving away money."

POST's environmentally themed Wallace Stegner lecture series was underwritten by Bill and Jean Lane, and Mr. Lane attended almost every lecture for 15 years, Ms. Rust said.

"He was a person who we will miss very much, but he has given us so much," Ms. Rust added. "What a wonderful legacy."

Included in that legacy locally will be Mr. and Ms. Lane's generosity in giving some $2.5 million to help build the $20 million three-building complex at the Portola Valley Town Center. The U.S. Green Building Council recently awarded the complex its highest rating.

Go to (case-sensitive) to read Marion Softky's story on Bill Lane as he approached his 90th birthday.


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