Skip to content Skip to navigation

Laurence William "Bill" Lane, Jr., 1919-2010

Bill and Jean Lane at the Center's annual "Walk the Farm" event in 2008.

L. W. "Bill" Lane Jr. came to California with his family after his father Laurence W. Lane Sr. bought the ailing Sunset magazine in 1929. Bill and his brother Melvin helped hawk subscriptions door to door. Later, Bill would go on to become publisher of the monthly magazine from 1959 to 1990, during which time the magazine chronicled and helped define life in a booming postwar American West.

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. Bill 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.

Endowment Gift to the Center for the West

In 2005, Bill and Jean Lane's $5 million gift to Stanford endowed the Bill Lane Center for the American West. “Bill wanted us to make Stanford the premier place for research, teaching and public education about the American West – past, present and future,” said the Center's founding co-director David M. Kennedy. "Thanks to his generosity we are well launched on making Stanford that kind of place, and a better neighbor and better regional citizen as well."

Lane 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.  At his memorial in 2010, Stanford President John Hennessy said, "There is hardly an aspect of the university that has not benefited from Bill's generosity. 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."

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. Bill 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 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.

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. Recollections from his globe-spanning life and career can be found in the memoir The Sun Never Sets: Reflections on a Western Life, which was edited by the Stanford historian Bertrand Patenaude and published posthumously by the Stanford University Press in 2013. 

"Bill Lane was a man of the West," said David M. Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford historian, who was a longtime friend of Bill Lane and his wife Jean.

"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 at Lane's memorial at Stanford in 2010. "Businessman, philanthropist, diplomat, Lincoln scholar, ardent conservationist and irrepressible horseman to the last, Bill Lane enriched countless lives with his remarkably creative generosity. As President John Hennessy has said, ‘Stanford embodies the West, and so did Bill Lane.’ It could be said of both Stanford and Bill that they have done far more than simply embody the West – they have powerfully shaped it as well. Sunset under Bill’s direction did not merely reflect western life-styles, but actively molded them, and in the process helped to promote characteristically western values of freedom, innovation, civic engagement and environmental responsibility.”