Celebrating the life of a Sunset visionary

Sunset remembers Bill Lane, the magazine's longtime publisher and very own Western legend

By Peter Fish

July 31, 2010, brought sad news to the Sunset family. Bill Lane, who had been Sunset magazine’s publisher for more than 30 years, died at the age of 90.

Few people shaped Sunset more strongly than Bill. (His given name was Lawrence William Jr., but nobody called him anything but Bill.) His publishing career began early. In 1928, his parents, Ruth and L.W. Lane Sr., moved from Iowa to California to purchase a struggling regional magazine called Sunset. Bill was then 8, his younger brother, Mel—who would have his own notable career with Sunset Books—was 6.  They were soon put to work selling Sunset subscriptions door-to-door.

Bringing success to Sunset

From that start, Bill’s passion for Sunset never waned. After graduating from Stanford University and serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned to work in a now-thriving Sunset’s sales, circulation, production, and book departments. In 1952, his father turned over management of the company to Bill and his brother. In 1959, Bill became Sunset’s publisher.

The magazine he took over had been successful. Bill made it more successful. His gift was knowing what readers needed and demanding his editors provide it. The West is a big place, he saw, and Sunset readers wanted information tailored specifically to the parts of the West they lived in.

So Sunset increased the number of regional articles it published—gardening tips just for the Pacific Northwest, for example, weekend trips near Phoenix. He saw readers were increasingly pressed for time and encouraged Sunset editors and writers to provide more quick but good recipes, easier and faster ways to make homes and gardens appealing retreats.

Above all, Bill wanted Sunset to embody—and protect—the West’s natural beauty. Bill’s love for the West’s mountains, coasts, and forests was, like the rest of him, enthusiastic and larger than life. Under his command, Sunset crusaded against DDT and for the preservation of open space.

Passion for the parks

As a teenager, he’d worked summers at Yosemite National Park, and the parks became a lifelong passion. So Sunset pushed for the establishment of national parks like Washington’s North Cascades and California’s Mojave National Preserve. And it advocated wiser use of existing gems like Yosemite.

Bill and Mel Lane sold Sunset Publishing to Time Warner in 1990. Selling the company allowed Bill to pursue interests beyond publishing. He’d already served on the boards of numerous environmental organizations and as Ambassador to Australia.

Now he was able to devote even more time and energy to causes like the Yosemite Fund, the National Parks and Conservation Association, and Stanford University, where he established the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

But Sunset was never far from his thoughts. Well into his 90th year, he was a frequent visitor to our offices, giving advice and constructive criticism, making sure that the 21st-century Sunset was as good as—or better than—the magazine he’d sold door-to-door decades earlier. Around here, he will be much remembered and much missed.

To learn more about a few of the good causes that Bill Lane supported, visit: