Story by Alyssa Mendez
Photos by Liz Cohen
Ask Wilton Lanning about Waco, Texas. He’ll mention Dr Pepper every time.
“I guess I started having a drinking problem a long time ago,” Lanning said. “I was born [in Waco] and my mother always denied that she had given me Dr Pepper in my formula.”
Lanning was born in Waco in 1936 to a family that lived in a large house on 13th Street and Columbus Avenue. After attending University of Colorado for a short time, Lanning found himself drawn back to Waco and Baylor University. He graduated with a degree from Baylor in the early ’60s, and upon graduating, and began working as a banker.
When Lanning’s father returned from World War II, he bought Padgitt’s, the oldest operating business in Waco today – Lanning ultimately became the fourth owner of the company.
But Lanning’s real passion lies elsewhere – in a glass bottle.
Lanning’s ties to Dr Pepper run deep – his grandparents lived in Dublin, Texas, home of the oldest Dr Pepper bottling plant. In fact, Lanning even peddled Dr. Pepper, along with other sodas, with a friend in junior high from a soda pop stand on 25th Street and Colcord Avenue.
Lanning’s collection was born in 1983 after a Baptist minister in Waco offered him some Dr Pepper memorabilia. From there the collection grew. And grew. And grew.
“It began to catch hold,” Lanning said. “It was an infection for which there’s no cure, and that is the interest in the soft drink we call Dr Pepper.”
Memorabilia covers the walls of his office along with photographs capturing memories of the beginnings of one of Waco’s biggest attractions – Dr Pepper museum. With each story he tells, Lanning, refers to something hanging on the wall, a bottle displayed on his desk, or even the camouflaged refrigerator filled with chilled Dr Peppers in the corner of the room.
In addition to being a passionate “Pepper,” Lanning also is the former president of the Waco Chamber of Commerce. In fact, during his time as president, Dr Pepper celebrated its 100th anniversary in April 1985. With an event at Austin Avenue and Fifth Street featuring comedian Bob Hope, Lanning was one of around 2,000 that attended the event.
Also present at the 100-year celebration was W.W. “Foots” Clements, chairman of Dr Pepper. Clements approached Lanning and challenged him to begin the process of creating a Dr Pepper museum in the bottling plant on Fifth and Mary streets.
“He told me, ‘That building is the home of the nation’s oldest soft drink. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a museum there?’ Lanning said. “He put the sales on me.”
From that conversation on, Lanning harbored a conviction to create a museum dedicated to Dr Pepper. He worked with the Chamber to join the city with some of the local foundations together to create a partnership that would make the Dr Pepper Museum possible.
“This was a potential for something really unique,” Lanning said.
On Sept. 11, 1987, the Waco contingents met with Dr Pepper corporate at its headquarters in Dallas and began the process of establishing a museum in Waco.
“My reputation preceded me a little bit,” Lanning said. “‘If anyone can get this done,’ one of the bankers said, and he pointed his finger at me. He was setting me up.”
The museum opened on May 11, 1991. “We chose that date not necessarily by accident,” Lanning said. “One of the most horrendous things that happened in Waco happened on May 11, 1953.”
On the anniversary of the infamous tornado that struck Waco, the museum represented a new beginning to the more than 10,000 people present for the opening, Lanning said.
“Even though the tornado had really tried, the building is still standing.”
A reporter at the opening questioned the success of the museum and confidence Lanning had that people would actually visit the museum.
“At this point there have been a few people come in,” Lanning said. “One million, three hundred thousand people from all over the world.”
Lanning has witnessed the museum grow and succeed.
“The formula is persistence, patience and damn hard work,” Lanning said. “You’re going to have setbacks. Some things go fantastic, and some things take a longer time.”
Lanning views the museum as a part of Waco that all citizens can take pride in.
“I like to tell people we live in the Holy Land, that being that this is the home of the oldest soft drink and the home of world’s largest Baptist university,” Lanning said.
And Lanning’s relationship with Dr Pepper bleeds into every part of his life.
“I have seen him give dozens of speeches over the years and, invariably, when he gets talking about the Dr Pepper Museum, he becomes so emotional over that,” said Robert O’Beirne, the manager of Olmsted Kirk Paper Co. a block away from the museum.
“He is Mr. Dr Pepper,” O’Beirne said.
Lanning believes the museum and Dr Pepper have played an important role of both defining Waco and putting it on the map in a positive way.
“Settled is the question of where Waco is,” Lanning said. “They know where it is, but that changed almost overnight and has evolved into ‘What is Waco? Oh, I’ve heard that’s the home of the nation’s oldest soft drink.’”
Lanning’s persistence in making Dr Pepper synonymous with Waco has given the city something that brings pride. In fact, due to his role in the community, Lanning is both for his love of the city and his love of Dr Pepper.
In a display of this, former Baylor president Herbert Reynolds gave Lanning an honorary doctorate from the university.
“[Reynolds] said, ‘Wilton, I’ve just got to do it. I’m going to bestow on you this day an honorary Dr Pepper degree,’” Lanning said. “I said ‘Dr. Reynolds that’s as close to an earned or honorary doctorate as I’ll ever get.’”
Lanning is aware that many people have come to identify him as the unofficial spokesman of Dr Pepper in Waco, and it is something he wouldn’t change.
“Personally, I feel very affirmed in the effort over the last 25-plus years and that it has turned out well,” Lanning said. “I don’t think I’d not want to be identified with Dr Pepper.”
As he walks through the museum, Lanning engages with a visiting family.
“We’ve got a little ‘Pepper’ here, don’t we?” Lanning said, referring to the small baby boy being carried by his mother.
Lanning hopes the work he has dedicated to furthering Waco will be continued long after he has gone.
“[The museum] is a part of the fabric and weave of this place we call Waco,” Lanning said.