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Founding the Bill Lane Center

The Bill Lane Center was founded in November of 2005 by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedy and Richard White, with the intention of making Stanford the premier place of study for the American West. In addition to being the founding co-director of the Bill Lane Center, David Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus at Stanford, whose scholarship in American Studies is notable for its integration of economic and cultural analysis with social and political history. Bill Lane was a philanthropist and publisher of Sunset Magazine, which chronicled and helped define postwar Western life. As longtime friends, Kennedy and Lane shared a passion for the West that led to many conversations over Kennedy's decades at Stanford about creating a university center that would examine the past, present and future of a region they both felt so deeply rooted in and shaped by. Though these conversations began in the 1980s, their vision came to fruition nearly 25 years later; on Christmas morning of 2004, Bill Lane made an unexpected phone call to Kennedy promising five million dollars to endow a center for the American West with his name on it.

headshot of david kennedy
David Kennedy, Founding Faculty Co-Director of the Bill Lane Center and Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus.

At home in the West

Raised in Seattle until he came to Stanford as an undergraduate, David Kennedy says he always felt more comfortable and at home in the West. Though born in upstate New York, Kennedy's father moved West right after World War I to work in the mining industry, which played a key role in the settlement of the West and the industrialization of the nation as a whole. When the mining company he worked for in Washington state went bust during the Great Depression, Kennedy's father spent several years out of work before becoming a federal civil service employee. Soon after the start of World War II, David Kennedy was born.

With Western roots running deep, it is no wonder Kennedy ended up back at Stanford even though he was also offered a faculty position at Yale for the 1967-68 school year. Kennedy earned his MA and PhD in American Studies from Yale, but he never liked New Haven, and made no secret of it. "I hated living in New Haven, Connecticut. I got excellent graduate training, but I couldn't get out of New England fast enough!" Kennedy admits. The West was just too central to his sense of identity and well-being, which became apparent to him when another offer to return to Yale presented itself in the 1990s. As Kennedy recalls, 

In 1966, I was mulling whether to accept offers of assistant professorships at Stanford, my undergraduate alma mater, or Yale, where I was just finishing graduate school. My adviser, John Blum, though he was an ardent, deep-blue Yalie (the Yale Daily News once described him as “more Ivy League than the J. Press catalogue”), paraphrased Horace Greeley and told me to “Go West, because that’s where the future is.” To be honest, as a native Westerner who never found myself fully at home in New England, I did not need a lot of persuading. So I took his advice, packed up my old car and headed for Palo Alto. But a quarter century later I found myself mulling whether to accept an offer to return to Yale. As a career opportunity, Yale at that moment looked quite attractive. I gave the matter sustained and serious thought. I nearly accepted – but in the final analysis I came to realize, with a clarity and, yes, a passion that I had not previously felt, that my roots in the West had sunk ever more deeply, and that my interest in the region’s history, character, and prospects had grown ever more compelling. That was the moment when I fully embraced my identity as a Westerner. And it’s when I determined to make Stanford the premier institution for research and teaching about the region.

A hub for research on Western land and life

Stanford has always been regarded as a preeminent academic institution in California and the West, and as such, many prospective students assumed that the university had a program focused on Western U.S. history even before the Bill Lane Center was founded. As associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences in the 1980s, and later as History department chair, Kennedy recalls receiving a fairly steady stream of inquiries from people all over the country who wanted to study the West. "They would ask, 'What does Stanford’s program look like in Western History?' And I had to answer many times, 'I’m sorry we don’t have anything like that. '" 

Bill Lane had a brother Mel, and Mel's wife Joan worked in the dean's office with Kennedy in the 1980s. Both Mel and Joan Lane were longtime Stanford supporters and volunteers, with Joan Lane serving as special assistant to the Board of Trustees, as well as special assistant to former president Gerhard Casper and two former deans of the School of Humanities and Sciences. Of Joan Lane, Kennedy says, "she's just a very heavy-hitting, high-octane, substantial person. She and I had a lot of conversations back in the 80s about why Stanford isn't more prominent in the study of this region." Several of these conversations centered on how the Lane family, given their history with Sunset Magazine, and their deep ties to the West, would be logical candidates to provide the initial funding for such a center. Those conversations went on and off for years with Joan, Mel and Bill, Kennedy says. And though all the Lanes expressed clear support for a center focused on the West, Bill Lane was the person with whom Kennedy gained the most traction. 

There were other key steps along the way in creating the Bill Lane Center. One was recruiting Richard White as Stanford's premier historian of the West. Kennedy received some help with that from David Laney, a then Alumni-elected member of the Stanford Board of Trustees from Dallas, Texas. Laney foresightedly made a generous initial gift for the study of the West that paved the way for White to join the Lane Center. This was a real win, according to Kennedy: "When Richard left the University of Washington to come here, it made the front page of two Seattle newspapers, because he was thought to be such a treasure for that region and that university."

With the gift from David Laney, the recruitment of Richard White, and an expressed expectation that Stanford, given its location, aspirations and identity, should become a place of some consequence for the study of the Western region, Kennedy, with Bill Lane's endowment, was able to realize his vision. He and Richard White co-founded the Bill Lane Center for the American West in November of 2005. 

Bill Lane himself did not try to shape the mission or identity of the Center, says Kennedy. Lane was content to know that the Center would be deeply invested in the history of the West, and he hoped that it would “celebrate” the region as a success story. "That’s not an indefensible position," Kennedy notes, "but we’re much more critical of that position now than we used to be." 

At Bill Lane's memorial service in 2010, David Kennedy shared fond memories of Lane making annual appearances at the fall gathering of Lane Center student interns, who came together at the start of the school year "to share tales of their summer research and adventures in places like Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the San Francisco Estuary Institute and, of course, Sunset Magazine. Bill would typically show up in traditional Western attire, often sporting one of his honorary park ranger “Smokey the Bear” hats, and he would regale the students with yarns from his own youthful days in Yosemite and Sequoia. On those occasions he liked to share his own passion for the West by quoting his favorite lines from Sam Walter Foss: 'Give me men to match my mountains: Bring me men to match my plains: Men with empires in their purpose And new eras in their brains.'"

Both Kennedy and Lane were attracted to the cultural notion of the West as a place where anything is possible -- where one can dream big, start anew, accomplish great things. "That's part of the mythological and cultural heritage of the region," Kennedy explains. Other issues central to the West -- its politics and natural resources, in particular -- have drawn students and scholars to the Lane Center's proverbial doors in recent years. Political scientist Bruce Cain took over as the faculty director in 2013, broadening the Bill Lane Center’s commitment to Western culture with the inauguration of its ArtsWest program and deepening its research related to sustainability and governance issues in partnerships with other campus research institutes. For the Bill Lane Center, the American West remains a place that is both real and imagined.

Though history, climate, institutions, politics, demographics and economics are all threads making up the West's identity, the more mythological "West of the imagination" is probably the West Bill Lane identified with the most. His legacy lives on in the research, teaching and scholarship that comes out of Stanford's Bill Lane Center today, and certainly in the aspirations of the future Western leaders the Center hopes to guide and inspire.