Wilton Lanning, the longtime owner of Padgitt’s, founding president of the Dr Pepper Museum and W.W. Clements Free Enterprise Institute, and a Waco historian, died of a sudden illness Wednesday at 81.

Retired State District Judge George Allen was a longtime friend of Lanning’s and said they went to lunch together on an almost weekly basis. Allen praised Lanning for his community activism and his dedication to the development of the Dr Pepper Museum and W.W. Clements Free Enterprise Institute.

“Wilton was a good friend,” Allen said. “We met in 1952 at Waco High School in Mrs. Barkley’s algebra class and we graduated from high school together in 1955. Wilton went to Baylor, and I went to A&M and we were on the same deer lease for 25 years. We went to lunch on Thursday, and he was telling me about writing a story for your newspaper about Doris Miller and his parents. He was a good friend, and I will miss him.”

Lanning, a Baylor University graduate, was the longtime owner of Padgitt’s until his retirement in 2005. He helped found the Dr Pepper Museum and W.W. Clements Free Enterprise Institute. A bronze plaque honoring Lanning and the late W.W. “Foots” Clements was unveiled at the museum in 2014 to commemorate their work in establishing the facility. The museum opened to the public in 1991.

Lanning was also a member of the Tribune-Herald Board of Contributors.

Waco Assistant Police Chief Robert Lanning, Wilton Lanning’s son, said he appreciates all the kind words and thoughts for him and his family.

Tentative funeral plans include a visitation from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Dr Pepper Museum. The funeral is tentatively planned for 2 p.m. Sunday at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church, 1300 Columbus Ave. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Wilkirson-Hatch-Bailey Funeral Home in Waco.

“He was the finest man I’ve ever known,” Robert Lanning said. “He was a kind, gentle and ethical man and he was a tireless cheerleader for the city of Waco, for his family and for the Lord.”

Wilton Lanning had a dream for the Dr Pepper Museum and made it happen, said Jack N. McKinney, executive director at the museum.

“There was an abandoned bottling facility in the downtown area, a downtown area that was considerably different than it is today, run-down and blighted,” McKinney said. “The building itself was in very poor condition. He took it upon himself to approach the leadership of Dr Pepper and form a partnership with them to build a nonprofit museum to commemorate the history.”

The museum started humbly, though a first-day opening attracted more than 10,000 people, he said. The museum has grown over the years and attracted more than 141,000 visitors last year, McKinney said. He has been with the organization 18 years.

“He liked to think that we started a lot of the reconstruction of downtown on Mary Street there,” McKinney said. “He was so proud that we were ready for that influx in the downtown. Sometimes people will say, ‘Gee, weren’t you lucky that the Gaineses and Magnolia moved in a couple blocks from you?’ He would say, ‘There’s luck, and there’s being ready for opportunity.’ We were ready.”

As a leader, Lanning was unmatched, McKinney said.

Lanning was an Eagle Scout and was honored with a Silver Eagle Award in 2016 for his longtime service to Waco and devotion to scouting. At the time, Lanning said he remembered working with his troop in the days after the 1953 Waco tornado.

He was a founder of the 10-2-4 Collectors’ Club, which is now a national organization for collectors of Dr Pepper memorabilia, McKinney said. Lanning was also recognized as one of six Rotary Club of Waco members who celebrated 50 years of membership in the organization in 2015.

“He was one of a kind,” McKinney said.

Lanning was noted for his knowledge of Waco’s history. He spent much of his retirement with the Waco Business League, said David Lacy, president of Community Bank and Trust. The league awarded Lanning its Lifetime Achievement Award about a year ago. Lanning was also a former chairman of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.

“Wilton invested his retirement years in giving more than he had before, which was considerable,” Lacy said. “We’ve all lost a very close friend. He was a wonderful man. He cared deeply about this city and this community.”

Lacy said he remembers being a customer at Padgitt’s when Lanning worked there.

“The thing that just exuded from Wilton was his love and respect for our city and all that it stood for,” he said. “He had a great memory and could recollect key moments in our city’s history very well and had the ability to articulate that.”

Lanning’s death is a big loss to the community, said Jim Turner, former Baylor University regent and former owner of the Dallas-based Dr Pepper Bottling Co. of Texas. Turner owned the building that houses the Dr Pepper Museum until it was donated to the museum.

“He was one of the community volunteers who helped make the Dr Pepper Museum possible,” Turner said. “I would describe him as a crusader for the cause. He was our go-to guy when we needed help with anything. The museum now is going gangbusters, helped by all the other things going on downtown. It has become a stalwart of the free enterprise system.”

But above all, Lanning was a fun person to be around, Turner said.

Lanning played an instrumental role in preserving the city’s history, said Don Davis, former executive director of the Historic Waco Foundation.

“Wilton was an amazing resource for any of the history of Waco. He knew things about Waco and about Wacoans that a lot of people didn’t know,” Davis said.

Lanning was an active supporter of anything that would improve the city, Davis said.

“He was always positive,” Davis said. “We dealt with many situations that were not positive at times, and he always had a positive outlook and a positive spin on it.”

Everyone will miss him, Davis said.

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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