Dorothy Byron Lane dies at 96 widow of Gov. William Preston Lane

February 01, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

Dorothy Byron Lane, a shy girl who married the boy who lived across the street and wound up serving as Maryland's first lady, died Friday of congestive heart failure at her home in Hagerstown.

She was 96.

Described as fastidious and self-effacing by friends and family, Mrs. Lane learned to cope with her husband's late hours and the crush of visitors to the Governor's Mansion.

And she adapted to the peculiar demands of politics -- such as one late-night phone call to the mansion from an outraged drunk who had been thrown off a city bus in Frederick.

"She was a very gracious hostess; she opened up the mansion and had groups through, which I don't think had been done before on a regular basis," recalled her younger daughter, Jean Lane Goddard.

But public life also took its toll on Mrs. Lane, whose husband -- lawyer, banker and newspaper publisher William Preston Lane Jr. -- served one term as governor, from 1947 to 1951.

"I don't think I quite realized that every bit of my time would be taken up by 'first lady' (how I detest that word) duties," Mrs. Lane told a newspaper reporter in 1950. "But my main concern has always been my family, and I do everything I can to help the family."

Mrs. Lane was born in Mercersburg, Pa., to Lewis T. and Virginia Brewer Bryon.

Her father, a wealthy Boston native, built a business empire that included leather tanning plants, a shoe factory and the Hagerstown Herald Mail.

When she was 2 years old, her family moved to Hagerstown, across the street from the family of William "Pres" Lane Jr., who was four years older.

She attended public school in Hagerstown and graduated from a private high school, Dana Hall, in Wellesley, Mass.

She married Mr. Lane, a young lawyer and decorated World War I combat veteran, on Jan. 17, 1922.

The reception was held at the Byron house, decorated with white lilacs and American Beauty roses. It was, a friend once recalled, "one of the loveliest weddings anybody in this city ever saw."

In 1925 the couple bought a home in Hagerstown, where Mrs. Lane was to live for all but four of the next 68 years.

The slender woman, who had dark hair and blue eyes, played golf, went to the opera and symphony, and planted a formal rose garden around a pool behind her home.

"The symmetry of Mrs. Lane's garden is a direct reflection of her own temperament," a journalist wrote in 1947. "She is an instinctive apostle of order."

Mr. Lane was elected Maryland's attorney general from 1932 to 1936. In 1946 the Democrat ran for governor, pledging to stitch the state together with a bridge across the Chesapeake Bay.

Described as shy and uncomfortable in public, Mrs. Lane gamely campaigned with her husband. Her car was stolen while it was parked in front of a campaign worker's house on East 41st Street in Baltimore. At a political luncheon in the city, she half-jokingly invited more than 900 women who showed up to come to tea at the Governor's Mansion after the election.

After her husband's victory, she welcomed visitors. "I really love to receive groups here, particularly groups of children," Mrs. Lane told a reporter.

"It's an impressive and historic house, and I think that it makes an impression on children."

She also worked hard running the 35-room mansion, personally filling its vases with fresh flowers every morning and arranging meals for platoons of last-minute dinner guests.

But Governor Lane fell into deep political trouble after pushing for, and winning, a state sales tax in 1947.

Some voter anger spilled over onto the first lady, in the form of whispers that she had been careless about spending mansion funds.

"It's very disheartening when you are so careful with expenditures to hear the rumor that the sales tax paid for your daughter's wedding," Mrs. Lane told a reporter.

"Mother is a worrier and terribly conscientious," her elder daughter, Dorothy, told a reporter. "She really takes her job seriously, and I know she's often hurt by the rough and tumble of politics."

In the 1950 election, Governor Lane lost to Republican Theodore McKeldin.

As her husband left office, Mrs. Lane disclosed that she had saved $6,500 from her annual $16,750 mansion housekeeping allowance. She used the money to buy the state a painting of a family that included Horatio Sharpe, an 18th-century governor of Maryland.

The first span of the bridge across the bay was completed in 1952. It was named the Governor William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge following his death in 1967.

In June 1973, Mrs. Lane cut the ribbon on the bridge's second span.

She is survived by two daughters, Dorothy Lane Campbell of Falmouth, Mass., and Jean Lane Goddard of Greenwich, Conn.; three grandsons; and four great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. John's Episcopal Church in Hagerstown.

Burial will be in the Rose Hill Cemetery.

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