As the rehearsals for Music Theatre of Wichita progressed Monday afternoon, Velma Wallace wasn’t far from Wayne Bryan’s mind.
Mrs. Wallace, widow of Cessna Aircraft leader Dwane Wallace and longtime supporter of Wichita arts, culture and education, died Sunday afternoon. She was 95.
Bryan, producing artistic director of Music Theatre of Wichita, said Monday he considered Mrs. Wallace his friend.
Truth be told, she was a friend and benefactor for all of Wichita. Anyone who has ever gone to Exploration Place or the Sedgwick County Zoo, attended Music Theatre of Wichita or the Wichita Symphony could claim Mrs. Wallace as their friend.
“Her touches are everywhere,” said Shirley Beggs, wife of former Wichita State University president Don Beggs, who both became close with Mrs. Wallace during their time in Wichita. “There is just nothing that she was not interested in. If it improved the quality of life for people in Wichita, she was for it.”
Mrs. Wallace, often called “The First Lady of Cessna,” also represented the last of Wichita’s early aviation pioneer families. She began working at the company in 1937 as Dwane Wallace’s executive secretary.
“She really had a passion for this city, for aviation, for the love of flying,” said Jack Pelton, a former chairman, CEO and president of Cessna. “The fact that she was an aviator herself, a pilot, made her unique and a standout in this community. It is not that often you have the first lady understand the industry as well as she did.”
Funeral services are pending.
Cessna officials issued a statement on Monday:
“Mrs. Wallace not only impacted Cessna, but the entire aviation community as one of GA’s (general aviation’s) earliest women pilots We send our sympathies to the Wallace family during this difficult time.”
Growing up on a farm
Velma Lunt was born May 16, 1917. She grew up on her parents’ dairy farm in what is now north Wichita.
She was an active in 4-H and would tell people the farm youth organization helped shape her, teaching her basic public speaking, organization and record-keeping skills. She was a graduate of North High School and Wichita Business College.
In 1937, she applied for work at a tiny aviation company struggling through the Depression, the Cessna Aircraft Co.
She was hired as the executive secretary for Dwane Wallace. His uncle, Clyde Cessna, founded the company. And when it went into bankruptcy, the two Wallace brothers, Dwane and Dwight, along with Velma Lunt, worked to build the company back up.
A courtship began between Miss Lunt and Dwane Wallace. They married in 1941.
The couple were married for 47 years and had four daughters. Dwane Wallace led Cessna from its infancy in 1934 through 1975. He died in 1989.
Mrs. Wallace soon became a pilot with single- and multi-engine ratings. She fished and hunted with her husband, as well – all in keeping with her spirited farm background.
“She had great stories of flying back in the days when there was grass airstrips,” Pelton said. “She always had the grit of a Kansas farm girl and all the class of a first lady. She was the last of that generation of founding pioneers.”
Becoming a philanthropist
Throughout the years, the Wallaces developed a reputation for philanthropy, providing sizeable donations to the Midway Kansas Chapter of American Red Cross, Kansas Society for Crippled Children, Kansas 4-H Foundation, Girl Scouts, Music Theatre of Wichita, United Way of the Plains and others.
In 1976, the Wallaces established an endowment providing scholarships for WSU engineering students. They wanted students from humble financial backgrounds to have a chance at becoming engineers.
When Dwane Wallace died, Mrs. Wallace took over the responsibilities for the family affairs, becoming a partner in Wallace Investments.
One of the biggest donations she made was in 1993 when she gave $10 million to help create Exploration Place – with the stipulation that it be built on the west side of the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita.
In 2005, Mrs. Wallace told an Eagle reporter: "When I made the original gift to Exploration Place I wanted to give something of significance to the community and especially to the children and families of our community. I still believe in that vision and see it come to life every time I visit Exploration Place and watch children and their parents and grandparents, whole families, learning and creating together.”
Giving people the chance to learn and grow were important to Mrs. Wallace, said Bryan, of Music Theatre.
“Velma was a tremendous booster of Music Theatre of Wichita and not just because she loved theater but because a passion of hers was educating people,” he said. “I think it meant a lot for her to see young people have the opportunity to learn.
“I don’t think we will ever know all she did for this town. We were all a beneficiary of her love and caring, her generosity and good humor. She loved us all, warts and all.”
Bob Knight, Wichita mayor when Exploration Place opened in 2000, said the science and children’s museum would never have opened without Mrs. Wallace.
“She was the financial bulwark,” Knight said. “I don’t know anyone who didn’t or doesn’t respect her. Her death is truly a great loss for this city.
“There wasn’t anything about her that wasn’t genuine. She was thoughtful and measured in what she did. She did great things.”
She simply represented the values of Wichita, said past WSU president Don Beggs.
“She reached out and cared for other people,” said Beggs, who retired earlier this month. “We look at her as the role model of what Wichitans are and want to be.”
Contributing: Molly McMillin of The Eagle.