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Remembering Bill Lane, by David M. Kennedy

A remembrance delivered at a celebration of Bill Lane’s life at Memorial Church, Stanford University, October 1, 2010

By David M. Kennedy

The glowing embers of a bonfire falling like a waterfall of fire over the edge of Glacier Point at Camp Curry in Yosemite.

Bill Lane was many things: Husband, father, brother, son, friend, businessman, philanthropist, diplomat, conservationist and horseman, just to name the most familiar.

To recite such a list is to be reminded of Orson Welles’s legendary self-introduction to a theater audience: “I am a producer, director, screenwriter, playwright, magician, editor, connoisseur, raconteur, bon vivant and actor.... What a pity there are so many of me, and so few of you.”

Like Welles, Bill was an outsized man of seemingly infinite interests and limitless energy. And like Welles, he often left you with the feeling that he had you seriously outnumbered, that no matter what the topic or the occasion, Bill had more ideas — and had them sooner and more clearly — than even the most caffeinated and clairvoyant among us.

Bill was above all a man of the West. He was born on the sunset side of the Mississippi, moved as a young boy to California, hiked and packed as a lad in the great western parks of Yosemite and Sequoia, immersed himself in the region’s stories and legends, and for decades published Sunset magazine, as iconic a repository of western lore and lifestyles as there has ever been.

Bill’s life-long engagement with the history – and the future – of the West deeply colored his involvement with Stanford University, and it is most fitting that this memorial service is taking place on the campus he loved and to which he contributed so much. The Lane family’s presence is everywhere around us: in this very church, which they helped to restore after the Loma Prieta earthquake; from The Lane Family Professorship in the Business School to Lane History Corner, both honoring Bill’s and his brother Mel’s parents; from the Bill and Jean Lane Lectures in the Creative Writing Program to the restored Red Barn and Stanford’s equestrian program, to the labs at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve — and, of course, to the Bill Lane Center for the American West, of which I am proud to be the Faculty Co- Director.

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. 

And now, through the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford has committed itself to sustaining Bill’s informed and principled stewardship for this land that he loved. Bill wanted us to make Stanford the premier place for research and teaching and public education about the American West – past, present and future. 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.

Bill was incapable of being a passive benefactor, especially when it came to something as important to him as the West. My most vivid memories of him are attached to the annual appearance he made at the fall gathering of our student interns, where they share tales of their summer researches 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."

Bill reminisced with special fondness about his assignment in Camp Curry on the floor of Yosemite Valley, when he had the honor of calling down the firefall from the top of Glacier Point. The annual highlight of those intern meetings was when Bill stepped out into the atrium to re-enact his part in that event and let rip with “Let the Fire Fall!” He had lungs of leather to the last, and fairly rattled the rafters above. The students will never forget it, nor shall we ever forget Bill, nor his urging, quoting Wallace Stegner’s riff on Sam Walter Foss, to help the people of the West “to build a society to match the scenery.”

God bless you, Bill, and God bless your wondrous West.