A Legacy of Advocacy
Mel Lane reminded us some land belongs to everyone.
Photo: Glenn Matsumura
By John Hennessy
Each June, as I stand before our graduates at Commencement, I note that they are embarking on a new phase of their lives, and I urge them to consider how they can learn from alumni and use their talents to make a difference.
For the past six years I have made it a tradition to talk about a Stanford alumna or alumnus whose contributions have changed our world. This year, I talked about Melvin B. Lane, or “Mel,” as most of us knew him.
Mel was a businessman, philanthropist, an early champion of the environment and a dedicated Stanford supporter. His death last summer was a great loss for us and for California.
A member of the Class of 1944, Mel earned his degree in economics from Stanford. After serving in the Navy, he returned to California and joined his brother, Bill, ’42, to work at Sunset, their father’s magazine. In 1952, operations transferred to the brothers, with Bill heading up the magazine and Mel overseeing the book division.
Mel and Bill ran Lane Publishing for almost four decades, transforming it into a celebration of the West and an early pioneer in the do-it-yourself movement. Sunset Books both reflected the Western way of life and helped shaped it, especially the classic Western Garden Book. Like many Californians, I have purchased several copies.
In 1990, the brothers sold Lane Publishing to Time Warner. At the time, Mel was still driving his 1971 Chevrolet convertible. When a reporter asked what he might do after the sale, he said, “I don’t plan to do anything different as far as the money goes. . . . I might afford a new car.”
An astute businessman, Mel also was a dedicated conservationist. Like many Stanford alumni, he was visionary in his thinking. He believed that good environmental policy could be good business and championed conservation long before sustainability became a watchword.
In 1965 he was appointed by then Gov. Edmund Brown to be the first chairman of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Although pundits predicted its failure, the commission produced a plan that continues to protect the Bay and its wetlands today, thanks in large part to Mel’s leadership, vision and incredible patience.
In 1972, when the California Coastal Commission was established, then Gov. Ronald Reagan asked Mel to serve as its first commissioner. After hundreds of public meetings, the commission delivered a plan that is still conserving California’s magnificent coast. In 1977, Mel co-founded the Peninsula Open Space Trust. He served on its board for more than two decades, working with POST to preserve nearly 60,000 acres.
In 1998, the California League of Conservation Voters recognized his enormous contributions, naming him Conservationist of the Year. The League stated, “If you look around California, you would be hard-pressed to find a place of beauty that Mel hasn’t played a part in preserving.”
In addition to his leadership in the business community and his pioneering work as a conservationist, Mel was deeply involved in the life of the University. In that—as in all things—he was greatly helped by his wife, Joan. They served on countless boards and committees, including Mel’s decade of service on the Stanford Board of Trustees. Generous philanthropists and dedicated volunteers, Mel and Joan hosted numerous Stanford events and greatly contributed to the intellectual life of the University, supporting activities ranging from the humanities and environmental research to the reconstruction of Green Library. Both are recipients of the Gold Spike, the University’s highest award for volunteer service.
After the Loma Prieta earthquake, Mel led the drive to restore Memorial Church to its early glory. And he was enormously successful—so successful that the University was able to include repairs to the upper balconies, closed since the 1906 earthquake.
Last fall at the service celebrating his life—held in Memorial Church with all the balconies open—the song “This Land Is Your Land” was played, reminding us all of Mel’s joy, his deep caring and his great love for our planet.
Mel Lane’s advocacy and stewardship exemplified the Stanford spirit. His legacy lives on in Memorial Church and across the campus, in California’s beautiful open space preserves and everywhere along the glorious California coast. I hope Mel’s personal vision and service inspire each of us to ensure that we are good stewards of this legacy.
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