Wilton Lanning

Wilton Lanning, the longtime owner of Padgitt’s and a local history enthusiast, died Wednesday at 81. He helped found the Dr Pepper Museum in 1991.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file/

The void left by Wilton Lanning’s death at age 81 isn’t hard to understand. Civic leader, successful businessman, founding president of the Dr Pepper Museum and W.W. Clements Free Enterprise Institute and regular Trib contributing columnist, Wilton was a genial presence about Waco, mixing with all walks of life, furthering worthy causes big and small and spreading optimism wherever he went. His departure is especially sorrowful because we need his encouragement now more than ever.

Wilton’s life and good works symbolize the industrious, innovative capitalist ways the Founding Fathers envisioned for America, a vision that he articulated when touting his beloved W.W. Clements Free Enterprise Institute. Through his years of running what was once Waco’s oldest business, Padgitt’s (complete with big-screen TVs, high-end electronics and photographic equipment); forging a partnership with Dr Pepper to restore a tornado-battered building (and transform it into a popular museum); and overseeing the Waco Business League as it fueled economic opportunity, Wilton reminded us of our place in history and potential.

During his years as a contributor to Trib opinion pages, Wilton delighted in telling and retelling certain stories. These celebrated not only the goodness of regular, down-home folks and the importance of generosity by those upon whom fortune has smiled but also the concept of men and women working in unison for a greater good — not just good for themselves but for generations yet unborn. No story he championed represents this so well as his telling time and again of the birth and gradual improvement of Lake Waco in the last century. At certain times — such as the devastating drought of 2011 — he reminded readers that foresight, collaboration and progress by earlier generations ensured we were far better off than many people across parched Texas. He was right. It’s a story worth repeating.

At a time when the nation is divided and many Americans seem ready to “burn it all down,” Wilton cheerfully celebrated such old-fashioned but reassuring concepts as free enterprise, philanthropy, the arts, the outdoors, integrity and carefully maintained friendships. And to the end he celebrated the miraculously restorative powers of a Dr Pepper Float.