L.W. “Bill” Lane Jr., a publisher and philanthropist who gave millions of dollars to Stanford and endowed a university center committed to the study of the American West, died Saturday, July 31. He was 90.

Bill Lane portrait

Bill Lane (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Lane was publisher of the monthly Sunset magazine from 1959 to 1990, during which time the magazine chronicled and helped define life in a booming postwar American West.

Lane’s $5 million gift to Stanford in 2005 endowed the Bill Lane Center for the American West. He also contributed money and fundraising efforts to the 1984 restoration of the Red Barn Equestrian Center and repair of Memorial Church and the Quad’s History Corner after the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. The History Corner was renamed the Lane History Corner.

“Bill Lane was a man of the West,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford historian David M. Kennedy. Kennedy is the faculty co-director of the Bill Lane Center and a longtime friend of Lane’s.

“His beloved Sunset magazine, published by two generations of Lanes for more than half a century, is an iconic tribute to the Lane family’s deep engagement with the western region,” Kennedy said. “Businessman, philanthropist, diplomat, Lincoln scholar, ardent conservationist and irrepressible horseman to the last, Bill Lane enriched countless lives with his remarkably creative generosity.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in communication from Stanford in 1942, Lane enlisted in the Navy and served in World War II. Having developed what would become a lifelong interest in the Pacific Rim, he later re-entered public service as ambassador-at-large in Japan, then ambassador to Australia and Nauru under Presidents Ford and Reagan.

A life devoted to philanthropy

He then devoted his life to philanthropic work at Stanford, the surrounding communities and in the region he loved – the American West.

“There is hardly an aspect of the university that has not benefited from Bill’s generosity,” said Stanford President John Hennessy. “Stanford embodies the West, and so did Bill Lane. There are few people who have left such a fitting legacy to the university, and even greater, to society at large.”

Provost John Etchemendy said Lane’s “passion for Stanford and for its faculty and students will be missed greatly.”

“Those of us who had the pleasure of working with Bill over the years marveled at his love of Stanford and at the energy and enthusiasm he brought to every project in which he was involved,” Etchemendy said. “His founding of the Bill Lane Center for the American West in particular is a lasting legacy to his love of the West, his conviction in its promise and his vision in seeing how Stanford could best contribute to the region and the nation. Bill was also a gracious and generous friend, and his presence on the Stanford campus will be dearly missed.”

Lane also led the restoration effort for university founder Leland Stanford’s gubernatorial mansion in Sacramento in the early 1990s. He and his wife, Jean, helped fund the creation of an environmental research station at the Jasper Ridge Preserve in the foothills above the Stanford campus, and the Bill and Jean Lane Lecture series in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford.

“Bill Lane was devoted to his family, to Stanford University, to our students and to the American West,” said Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center. “We will remember his great cheer, his vivid memories of a life lived to the fullest in the West and the way he inspired our students to study this region, go out and do good work around the West and enjoy this land we love. We will miss him, but his energy and enthusiasm will be in our minds as we carry on our work in his spirit.”

Lane’s philanthropy wasn’t limited to Stanford. He funded environmental internships at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Lecture Series managed by the Peninsula Open Space Trust. He also served on the board at Colonial Williamsburg.

‘Honorary Ranger’ for state, federal parks

Lane donated to many parks and conservation groups, including the California State Parks Foundation relief fund, which helped parks employees whose homes were damaged in the 2003 wildfires. He boasted that he was the only person who held the title of “Honorary Ranger” in both the state and federal park systems.

Lane’s love of nature traced back to his upbringing on a farm in Des Moines, Iowa, and then his family’s move to the Bay Area in the late 1920s.

He spent time as a young man on a ranch near Santa Cruz that is now a state park, where the house he lived in is still preserved.

Lane’s father, Laurence W. Lane Sr., bought the ailing Sunset magazine in 1929. Bill and his brother, Melvin, helped hawk subscriptions door to door. Bill went on to become publisher of the magazine, while his brother assumed direction of Sunset Books.

While better known for lush photography and lifestyle features, Sunset was instrumental in the campaign against the chemical pesticide DDT, which was banned in the 1970s. The bold decision to buck advertising interests was emblematic of a life that balanced commerce with conservation.

Lane was instrumental in incorporating the town of Portola Valley in 1964. He was elected the town’s first mayor but resigned after 20 minutes, announcing that he had other things to do.

Lane is survived by his wife, Jean; children Robert Lane, Sharon Lane and Brenda Munks and her husband, Greg; and five grandchildren.

Geoff McGhee is the director of communications and media for the Bill Lane Center for the American West.