Mel Lane, former Sunset publisher and environmental philanthropist, dead at 85
By Mack Lundstrom and Paul Rogers
August 1, 2007
Mel Lane, who helped define Western living as co-owner of Sunset magazine and Sunset books, and later helped preserve some of the region's most spectacular scenery as the first chairman of the California Coastal Commission, has died. He was 85.
Mr. Lane, for almost a half-century one of Northern California's most prominent conservation leaders, died Saturday of complications from Parkinson's disease at his home in Atherton.
For more than 30 years, from the 1950s until they sold Sunset magazine and books to Time Warner in 1990, Mr. Lane and his brother, Bill, who lives in Portola Valley, ran the family-owned publishing company. The magazine's subtitle, "The Magazine of Western Living," wasn't descriptive or reverential enough for many readers, who substituted "bible" for "magazine."
Mr. Lane also was a leading philanthropist who donated millions to Stanford University, the World Wildlife Fund and land preservation groups such as the Peninsula Open Space Trust in Palo Alto.
Stanford University President John Hennessy said Tuesday it will be hard to imagine Stanford, where Mr. Lane served as a trustee from 1981 to 1991, without him.
"From helping to restore our beloved Memorial Church after the Loma Prieta earthquake to supporting the humanities and creative writing, to lifelong support for our environmental research and teaching, Mel has touched virtually every corner of Stanford," Hennessy said.
Mr. Lane made his fortune by building up an empire about civic-minded, orderly living decades before Martha Stewart came along.
With Mr. Lane running the book division and Bill Lane directing the magazine from their Menlo Park headquarters, the brothers turned their father Laurence's 1928 investment of $65,000 into one of the nation's leading regional publishing companies.
"Any nursery you go in, Sunset's Western Garden Book is there. It's well worn," Mr. Lane's wife Joan said Tuesday. "I don't know how many millions of copies have been sold. It was a source of pride for him. But he wouldn't have ever pointed to himself and claimed any credit for it. He was a very quiet soul."
When the brothers decided to sell their company in 1990, Sunset magazine's 1.3 million circulation and Lane Publishing's food, garden, travel and how-to books - which sold 6.5 million copies a year - brought $225 million from Time Warner.
"All of their publications were designed for average people. They were accessible. The tone said to slow down and enjoy life, make the most of it," said Richard G. Turner Jr., editor of Pacific Horticulture magazine.
Turner called Sunset's Western Garden book "the most important book any gardener should buy" when they take up gardening.
"I grew up in Detroit. I would pore over those pages and would read about those incredible places in California," he said. "It was a dream. It was one of the reasons I moved here."
Mr. Lane helped preserve large sections of California when he moved into politics.
In 1965, Mr. Lane was appointed by Gov. Pat Brown to be the first chairman of the newly created San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, an agency that blocked developers from filling in the bay and paving its wetlands.
Seven years later, Gov. Ronald Reagan named Mr. Lane first chairman of the California Coastal Commission, and despite being a Republican, he was reappointed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
When Reagan was elected president, he asked Mr. Lane to become director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Joan Lanerecalled.
"He said no," she remembered. "He didn't like being in the public eye. Mel was always the guy who said `make my speech shorter.' "
Mr. Lane's ability to excel as a businessman and environmentalist impressed Joe Bodovitz, executive director first of the BCDC and the Coastal Commission when Mr. Lane was chairman. "He has inherent good judgment and an ability to inspire confidence and loyalty from people with a wide range of points of view," Bodovitz said.
In 1977, concerned about the pace of urban sprawl, Mr. Lane co-founded the Peninsula Open Space Trust, a private group whose aim was to buy and preserve open space, forests, meadows and wetlands.
Since then, the group has preserved nearly 60,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to expand state and local parks - an area twice the size of San Francisco.
"I loved this man. He was generous in every aspect of his spirit," said Audrey Rust, president of the Peninsula Open Space Trust.
"He lived through the pre-war years in California. He experienced the growth of California, his business was dependent on it. And he saw the value of conserving those lands and resources that are irreplaceable."
Melvin Bell Lane was born May 11, 1922, to Laurence William Lane and the former Ruth Bell in Des Moines, Iowa, where their father was selling advertising for Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The family moved to San Francisco in 1928, the same year his father got the backing to buy the 30-year-old Sunset. It was then an on-board literary magazine for Southern Pacific Railroad's Sunset Limited.
The Lane brothers went to Palo Alto High School, selling Sunset subscriptions door-to-door after class. Mr. Lane graduated fromStanford University in 1944.
During World War II, Mr. Lane served on a destroyer in Okinawa. Bill Lane also served in the Navy. After the war, they returned toMenlo Park.
On the job, Mr. Lane concentrated on Lane Publishing, first as a production assistant, then as production manager, as vice president and business manager and executive vice president before Laurence Lane stepped aside in 1952.
Mr. Lane married Joan Fletcher in 1953 - a year after meeting her on a ski trip to Sugar Bowl near Lake Tahoe. They had two daughters, Whitney and Julie.
Although Bill Lane directed Sunset magazine and Mr. Lane ran Sunset Books, twice while his brother served as a U.S. ambassador,Mr. Lane directed both the magazine and the publishing company.
"He was a wonderful guy, and he just gave so much," Joan Lane said.