By Marion Softky
The rock circle at Glacier Point overlooks one of the most spectacular views in the entire world: Half Dome and the glacier-carved mountains of the High Sierra to the east, linked to the cliffs and waterfalls of Yosemite Valley below.
A brass plaque dedicates the amphitheater to "BILL LANE, PUBLISHER, STATESMAN, PHILANTHROPIST, CHAMPION OF THE NATIONAL PARKS."
This tribute barely hints at the range and diversity of Bill Lane's interests and activities. The former publisher of Sunset magazine is better known locally for his long history with Portola Valley, his support of local parks and open space, and his devotion to Stanford University. All have benefited not only from his deep pockets, but from his personal involvement at every level.
Now that Mr. Lane is approaching his 90th birthday on Nov. 7, family, friends and admirers are taking stock of his many achievements and contributions. Portola Valley is planning a big birthday party for him on Sunday, Nov. 22.
Even at 90. Mr. Lane's energy is awesome. He may have given up his plans to take a tourist trip into space, but he recently took his wife, Jean, on a dirigible ride out of Moffett Field. And he still puts in full days tending his many projects. "I don't feel a lot different," he says, "But increasingly my good friends are a lot younger."
Life changed for the Lane boys, Bill and his younger brother Mel, when they moved from Iowa to California in 1928. California really was different. "It was a drastically different lifestyle," Bill says.
Their parents, Laurence W. and Ruth Bell Lane, had left "Better Homes and Gardens" in Iowa and bought Sunset magazine in San Francisco. Ever since, the magazine has been a laboratory for ways of living in the West, and has come to define its mystique. "It was not about the West; it was for the West," says Martin Litton, a fierce conservationist who worked for 15 years at Sunset.
The Lane boys started working in the family business at the bottom. They sharpened pencils, emptied wastebaskets, and sold Sunset subscriptions door-to-door.
After Naval service in World War II, they plunged into the family business and in 1961, took it over. In 1990, they sold Sunset to Time Warner, and theoretically retired.
Bill published Sunset magazine, and Mel put out hundreds of books on the magazine's core subjects: gardening, cooking, home improvements, and travel. Sunset's "Western Garden Book" remains the bible for immigrants from other climates, and for native westerners.
A trip to Yosemite when he was 9 sparked Bill's lifelong passion for parks. Through his teen years he worked summers at Yosemite as a packer and other jobs. A big, cheery man with a booming voice, Bill took special pleasure in calling the famous firefall, a cascade of flame where a bonfire pushed off Glacier Point fell 2,000 feet to the valley below.
I can remember when Bill shivered the rafters of the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C. He was being honored as Conservationist of the Year by the National Parks and Conservation Association. He climaxed his presentation with the full-volume call: "Let the Fire Fall."
Sunset provided a natural base for the Lane brothers to pursue their passion for parks, the environment and public service. In 1969, Sunset pulled the plug on DDT; it published an expose of the lethal pesticide and refused to advertise it. Sunset also supported national parks and environmental causes without getting embroiled in the often-bitter fights about details.
No newspaper has enough space to list all of Bill Lane's awards and accomplishments, nor his gifts to support thousands of causes, large and small. He was ambassador to Australia and Nauru from 1985 to 1989, and still serves on dozens of boards of worthy organizations.
A Stanford graduate, Class of '42, Bill remains a devoted alum. He led the campaign to restore the Red Barn and made the lead gift towards the new field station at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. The Lane History Corner and the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the American West continue to enrich university programs.
The Portola Valley story
Bill Lane loves to say he was the first mayor of Portola Valley — for 20 minutes.
As top vote-getter in the 1964 election to incorporate Portola Valley, Mr. Lane convened the first meeting of the Town Council. Because Mr. Lane was too busy to be mayor, the council quickly elected Nevin Hiester as mayor, with Mr. Lane as vice mayor. "Organizing Portola Valley was like herding cats," he reflects.
Living in Portola Valley for more than 50 years, Bill and Jean Lane have helped shape the town, both through their generosity, and through their personal involvement in every aspect. As residents of Westridge, the Lanes were involved in its pioneering efforts to control building and design for the neighborhood.
As San Mateo County approved more subdivisions and developments, including a sewer line out Alpine Road to serve The Sequoias retirement complex, Bill Lane became a leader in the drive to incorporate the town in order to control use of its land and preserve its rural charm.
Nothing is too small or too big to gain Mr. Lane's attention, energy and funding. His deep pockets are accompanied by energetic participation and meticulous attention to detail. And every year at Christmas, he dresses in a red suit as Santa Claus.
"He has fantastic energy; he seemed to be everywhere," says Ed Davis, a former Westridge neighbor and council member. "He was an ideal neighbor in the broadest sense."
Mr. Lane's generosity is visible all over town. The new Town Center, restoration of the historic schoolhouse, the Larry Lane Trail, Lane Hall at Ormondale School, and the Lane Family Room at Valley Presbyterian Church are among the most visible projects that benefited from Lane generosity.
Councilman Ted Driscoll is grateful that Mr. Lane's support of the new $20 million Town Center did not extend to trying to influence its design. "There were no strings attached," he says.
Councilman Steve Toben admires the way Bill Lane "personifies the democratic ideal."
Often Bill Lane is the only member of the public attending Town Council meetings, Mr. Toben says. Even with his national and international interests, Bill remains engaged in governing a town of 4,500. "He has never stopped caring about the life of the community."
Thanks, Bill, for everything. Happy birthday!
Senior correspondent Marion Softky has followed the career of Bill Lane and his family for more than 30 years in the pages of the Almanac.