So long to Bill Lane

Valley icon, publisher and philanthropist dies at age 90

Click on pictures to enlarge.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

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.

● See family obituary on Bill Lane.

● Read Marion Softky story on Bill Lane. (Nov. 7, 2009)

● Read the Stanford University News obituary.

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Like this comment
Posted by Dara
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Aug 2, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Bill Lane personified a true American hero. He saw where help was needed and offered it. He saw where improvement was warranted and set about making it happen. He saw our communities as a place to serve the body politic and to lend all he could to ensure fair practices and policies. His warm smile and kind manner will be missed. His wise countenance and philanthropic endeavors embody the spirit of this generous man.

Like this comment
Posted by Diane Hawks
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Aug 2, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Bill Lane was the nicest man and well known Cowboy I've ever known. He had a heart the size of Texas and was very generous and caring. I'm so fortunate that I was able to work for him and Jean caring for their horses for so many years. We had some great times including the Red Barn Festival. I am saddened to hear about his passing. I will never forget what he taught me and the times we spent together. He will be missed very much.

Like this comment
Posted by Colleen Hamilton
a resident of another community
on Aug 2, 2010 at 3:00 pm

The news of Bill Lane's passing is shocking to me for I truly believed he would live forever. I worked for him and with him at Sunset Magazine for 13 years. In the continuing years after I was fortunate enough to have him in my life in many other ways. He was my dear, dear friend. I'll always remember the singular Sunset rose he would place randomly on our desks before anyone showed up to work in the mornings. And the time he had my whole family come and spend a day at Cascade Lake where he taught my boys how to water ski. He was in that boat with them all day long. Or the day he told me he was happy I worked for him. The summer parties for the employees were unbelievable. Nothing was too good for us. There will never be another employer that shared his love and caring for his staff like Bill Lane. It was a family environment and he saw to it that it stayed that way. He was a father, mentor and friend to all of us. Those 13 years were the happiest years of my entire working career. I shall never forget him and all the good he did in his lifetime. I send my love to Jean, Brenda and the rest of the family. May God bless you all.

Like this comment
Posted by Ruth Peterson
a resident of another community
on Aug 2, 2010 at 4:33 pm

What a grand man Bill was. He was truly a gentleman and a scholar and did so much to help the environment. He surprised Sustainable San Mateo County with a generous gift a few years ago and continuously helped many organizations in this and other ways. His good works in the community have had a significant impact and will be remembered always. He was kind and willing to lend an ear and advice when asked.

Both he and his brother, Mel, whom he always included in his talks about their environmental role locally, in California and beyond, were true Pioneers following a family tradition.

Bill will be sorely missed in our world.

Like this comment
Posted by Earle Jones
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Aug 3, 2010 at 3:31 pm

One small nit to pick. My recollection is that, although Bill Lane received the most votes for Portola Valley Town Council after incorporation, he chose not to serve as Portola Valley's first mayor. That went to Nevin Hiester, a physicist /physical chemist at SRI (then Stanford Research Institute.)
Can anyone confirm this? My 79-year-old memory ain't what it used to be!


Like this comment
Posted by David Boyce
Almanac staff writer
on Aug 3, 2010 at 3:41 pm

David Boyce is a registered user.

Bill Lane was the first mayor of Portola Valley but it was ceremonial, for just 20 minutes, he told me. He had too much else going on to devote himself to being a mayor, too.

For the rest of his term, he was vice mayor under Mr. Heister.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda

on Sep 26, 2017 at 10:24 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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