Mr. Speaker, this year, the state of Texas mourned the loss of Wilton Lanning, the founder of the Dr Pepper Museum and W.W. Clements Free Enterprise Institute in Waco. Texas is a state rich with history, and certain people, places, and objects have become cultural icons.
The Alamo, Sam Houston, Friday night lights, and country music, to name a few are all woven into the fabric of Texas. The popular soda Dr Pepper is one such Texas icon. While the refreshing, sweet beverage has become a hit with consumers around the world, Texans retain a special connection to the brand.
Nowhere is this bond stronger than in Waco, where the soda was originally created in a corner drug store in the late 1800’s. Although the company had moved on from its original location as its business continued to grow, Lanning sought to bring the iconic brand back to Waco.
He set his sights on a disused building, an abandoned bottling facility, in downtown Waco to house a nonprofit museum dedicated to the heritage and history of the beloved soda.
The odds were stacked against him. The city of Waco had still not completely recovered from the brutal tornado that tore through the city in 1953, and the neighborhood Lanning had his eyes on was run down and bereft of economic or social vitality.
The building itself had been declared ‘‘blighted’’ by the city of Waco, hardly the ideal spot for a shrine of a world-famous soda product. There were more than a few naysayers, but Lanning did not let the doubters deter him.
Instead, he took initiative to garner support from the Dr Pepper Company and convinced them to sell the building in 1988 with the purpose of converting it into a museum. The renovation began in 1990, and Lanning oversaw the conversion of the old, decrepit building into an exhibition dedicated to Dr Pepper.
The museum opened to the public on May 11, 1991, 38 years to the day after the devastating tornado swept through Waco. 10,000 visitors passed through on the first day, and they continued to come.
The museum itself continued to expand from humble origins, and in 1997, the entire building was open to the public. In the same year, Lanning also helped launch the W.W. Clements Free Enterprise Institute, an organization housed in the museum dedicated to educating visitors on the American economic system as personified in the soft drinks industry.
Today, the museum has become a pilgrimage site for Dr Pepper aficionados from Texas and beyond, an essential institution to promoting the history and culture of our great state. None of this would have been possible without Mr. Lanning’s leadership and vision.
He will be missed not only for his role in the Dr Pepper Museum but also as an active, industrious citizen. He served his community with unrivaled passion and zeal as an Eagle Scout, a 50-year veteran of the Rotary Club, and an expert on Waco’s history.
Above all, however, the people of Waco and Texas will miss him as a friend and one whose unceasing optimism inspired those around him to be positive.
Mr. Speaker, Wilton Lanning left an admirable example to imitate, and he embodied the best values of our citizenry. So next time you crack open a cold Dr Pepper, raise your glass to Mr. Lanning, a custodian of a Texas icon.
And that is just the way it is.