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100 facts about Alton's gentle giant, Robert Wadlow

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They called him the Gentle Giant.

At 8 feet, 11.1 inches tall, Robert Wadlow was the tallest man to ever walk the Earth, at least in recorded history. Even if he was of normal stature, the people of Alton, where he grew up, would have remembered him as gentle.

“He was a good human being — kind,” said Dan Brannan, an Alton journalist who wrote a book about Wadlow in 2003. “He just really handled everything with class.”

Being tall wasn’t very easy, he pointed out, and it was hard to escape the stares and questions. Robert was born on Feb. 22, 1918. He died young, at age 22.

The people who remember him are dying off as well — Brannan interviewed dozens for his book, and many have since passed away. But the stories about him remain, as well as a life-size statue of him in Upper Alton, where he lived and went to school. The community embraced him.

“They treated him like a human being,” said Brian Combs of the Alton Museum of History and Art, which has a display dedicated to Wadlow. “Outside of here, he was a spectacle. Here, this was his place where he could relax and be a human being.”

There are lessons to be learned from the tallest man’s tragically short life. In 2018, on what would have been his 100th birthday, we presented 100 facts about his life, other tall people and plans for celebration.

1. Robert Pershing Wadlow was born the morning of Feb. 22, 1918, in a five-room house in the 1400 block of Monroe Street in Alton.

2. He weighed 8 pounds, 7 ounces at birth — normal for a baby boy.

3. His parents were Harold and Addie Wadlow, who were of normal height.

4. On Sept. 11, 2001, the house where he was born was moved to a spot behind the Robert Wadlow statue on the campus of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine in Alton.

5. The life-sized bronze statue by Edward Englehardt Giberson depicts Wadlow, who was 8 feet 11.1 inches tall when he died on July 15, 1940, at the age of 22.

6. At six months, he weighed 30 pounds. An average baby boy weighs about half that much.

7. When Robert began to walk, he weighed 40 pounds.

8. In the first few years of Robert’s life his family briefly lived in Alton; Charleston, W.Va.; Grafton and then for six years in Roxana, where he started elementary school.

The Alton Giant, Robert Wadlow

The Wadlow family poses together in 1935: brother Eugene, Addie (his mother), Robert, Harold Jr., sister Betty, Harold Sr. (his father) and sister Helen. Photo courtesy of Steve Cox

9. He had four younger siblings: Helen, Eugene, Betty Jean, and Harold Jr. Harold Jr., the youngest and last surviving sibling, died in 2000 and spoke fondly of his older brother. “I was the apple of his eye. What he didn’t know he was the apple of mine,” he told writer Dan Brannan for the book, “Boy Giant.”

10. His middle name, Pershing, was after the World War I General John J. Pershing, who was the commanding officer of the European conflict. The war ended nine months after Robert was born.

11. When he was 5 years old, he was 5-feet, 4-inches tall and weighed 105 pounds, and wore clothes that would fit an older teenage boy.

12. Just before his 12th birthday, he had his first checkup at Barnes Hospital. That’s where his family first learned his overactive pituitary gland caused the growth.

13. In a Post-Dispatch article about the doctor’s visit, they said he was a normal boy, mentally a little bit above average, who wanted to be an aviator when he grew up. The doctor told Robert that if he cooperated with the tests and exam, he would give him his pen-sized flashlight, which Robert admired.

14. Gladys Campbell Kelly, 99, of Roxana, went to first grade with Robert and says he was taller than the teacher, Mrs. Manley but had emotions like a normal 6-year-old boy. “One day in the classroom he fell and hit his head and he cried,” Kelly recalls. “And Mrs. Manley got on her tip toes and kissed him on the head, and that made it all well.”

15. She also remembers a wild asparagus patch behind the school, and students would race one another to pick asparagus so they could sell a pan of it for a quarter. Robert would run and beat others there to pick it. “He was a nice person, but he was a typical boy,” she says, laughing.

16. He used an adult-sized wooden Flexible Flyer sled, also on display at the museum.

17. His family moved back to Alton and Robert attended Milton elementary school. The building has now been repurposed as an arts and events space. His third-grade classroom now houses Maeva’s Coffee House.

18. In the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act, his schools made efforts to accommodate him. They added wooden blocks to the bottom of his desk at Milton; it’s on display at the Alton Museum of History and Art.

19. He got his first mention in the Alton Telegraph at age 8, when he was 6 feet and weighed 169 pounds. The headline? “Here’s Robert Wadlow and his Size 17 Shoes.” His family didn’t seek publicity in those early years.

20. Around this time, a bus driver tried to make him pay adult fare, but his father objected and the driver backed down. A train conductor did something similar.

21. When he was 11 years old, he met heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera. “The biggest human I have ever seen,” said Carnera, who was nicknamed the “Ambling Alp” and was 6 feet 7 inches.

22. When he was 12 years old and about 7 feet tall, he was shown in a filmed interview towering above his classmates. “When I grow up, I hope to be a big man like Lindy, if I can get a plane big enough,” he said in a deep voice uncharacteristic for a boy his age.

23. During an interview with the St. Louis Star-Times just before his 13th birthday, when he was 7 feet, 4 inches tall, he said he was getting used to people following him around. “The last time I was in St. Louis we stopped at the corner of 6th and Locust streets. You should have seen the crowd. They came from everywhere.” He also said he was riding an escalator in St. Louis when he forgot to duck and hit his head on an overhead sign. “Nearly knocked me out, I guess,” he said.

24. He also said he reads about 300 books a year. “I like boys’ adventure stories. They’re sure thrilling.”

25. At age 13, he became the World’s Tallest Boy Scout at 7 feet, 4 inches, and had a uniform specially made for him. He had to sleep on two cots during campouts.

26. It took 14 yards of 36-inch-wide fabric to make his Boy Scout uniform.

Wadlow in newspaper advertisement

"Boys and girls, come and see Robert Wadlow, biggest boy in the world" read the Stix, Baer & Fuller advertisement. Screencapture via stltoday.newspapers.com

27. He began making advertising appearances as a teen. A 1933 Post-Dispatch ad that ran when he was 13 years old advertised an appearance at Stix Baer and Fuller department store downtown. “The world’s biggest boy wears the world’s best 95 cent cap — the Eddie Cantor Adjustable cap. On sale in the Boys’ Corner,” the ad said.

28. He attended Alton High School, now the site of Alton Middle School.

29. Robert was a member of the Order of DeMolay as a teenager, a service organization administered by the Masons.

30. He didn’t play basketball for his high school team — coaches were afraid he’d get hurt. By the time they ordered a pair of special basketball shoes for him, the season was over. He would act as a “dropper” during pickup games, standing at the end of the court and dropping the ball into the basket.

31. He liked to eat but didn’t have an appetite that was much bigger than anyone else, despite articles that widely exaggerated it.

32. A story in the St. Louis Star and Times for his 15th birthday noted he was 7 feet, 8 inches tall, loved all things mechanical and was trying to build his own radio set with his schoolmates.

33. He had to walk sideways up steps so his feet could fit on the treads. He didn’t cup schoolbooks in his hands, but held them from the ends like pieces of paper. He ducked under doorways, could reach the tops of streetlights and had to avoid chandeliers and lighting fixtures.

34. When he was a teenager, he and his brother and sister started a soft drink stand in their front yard. People often came not because they were thirsty, but because they wanted to see Robert. He had customers pay for a drink before he’d stand up. They made more than $100 one summer.

35. Robert attended services at Main Street Methodist church and helped raise money for a new organ by sending an autographed photo to contributors. The chimes from the original organ are in the newer church, called Main Street United Methodist Church, and the fellowship hall is called Wadlow Hall, complete with a life-sized cutout of Robert.

36. He missed several weeks of class his junior year due to a stay in Barnes Hospital for a foot infection but graduated with the January 1936 class.

37. His graduation gown hangs in the Alton Museum of History and Art. It required 14 square yards of fabric to make his cap and gown.

38. He attended Shurtleff College in Alton for a semester and intended to study pre-law, but the icy walkways of campus made it hard to get around during the winter. The college is now home to the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine and the Alton Museum of History and Art. Robert took classes inside what is now the museum building.

39. Joe Bean, 90, of Roxana, was a boy when he met Robert selling photos of himself outside Kreskey’s dime store in Alton in the late 1930s. “He sold them for 15 cents, I gave him a quarter, and he gave me change,” said Bean. “And his hands were twice as big as mine.” Bean said he doesn’t have the photo anymore, and that he attended Robert’s visitation at the funeral home. “I guess nobody is going to be that tall anymore,” he said.

40. Had Robert lived today, he would not have grown that tall. Advances in medicine and surgery could have stopped the growth.

41. At age 19, he became the world’s tallest man, when he reached 8 feet, 4 inches.

42. Robert met Walt Disney at a convention of the DeMolay Founders Conference in Kansas City.

No secret ballot here

Robert Wadlow votes next to his father, as seen  in an image published April 9, 1939, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Screencapture via stltoday.newspapers.com

43. He cast his first ballot in an election in 1939, when he was 21. He had to crouch to get into the voting booth, and his head and shoulders projected over the top.

44. He became a member of Alton’s Franklin Masonic Temple in 1939, and his size 25 ring was the largest Masonic ring ever made. There is a display dedicated to Wadlow in the temple, as well as an oversized, upholstered chair he actually used.

45. A replica of the chair was placed next to the statue of Robert in 2002, and visitors can sit in it.

46. A ring replica is in the Alton Museum of History and Art and in a display case at Maneke Jewelers in Upper Alton, near the temple. A half-dollar can fit through the ring. The largest ring the jeweler has ever made is a size 15.

47. Wadlow signed with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1937, making brief appearances in a circus ring as an announcer introduced him. His appearances were dignified, and he wore a tie and dress pants. He appeared at Madison Square Garden and made stops in Brooklyn and Boston.

48. During a visit at the New York Stock Exchange, Wadlow appeared on the balcony and stopped trading on the floor when the men inside saw him and broke into applause.

49. Wadlow and his father made appearances all over the country for Peters Shoe Co., visiting more than 800 towns in 41 states. The Alton Museum of History and Art still gets photos sent to them from these appearances, as people find them in albums and attics.

50. Local towns Robert visited in Missouri include: Poplar Bluff, St. Charles, De Soto, Washington, Sullivan, Louisiana, Perryville and St. Clair.

51. Local towns Robert visited in Illinois include: Waterloo, Columbia, East St. Louis, Collinsville, Belleville, Millstadt, Edwardsville, Wood River, O’Fallon, Highland and Lebanon.

Alton's Gentle Giant turns 100

"Two of my feet are the size of one," said Jessa Price, 7, of Wood River, as she measures her foot alongside the life-size statue of Alton's Gentle Giant Robert Pershing Wadlow on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Alton. Wadlow still holds the record of the tallest man who ever lived. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

52. The Alton museum contains a shoe display case with display instructions from the Peters Shoe Co. It was clearly an advertising gimmick, but it attracted customers: “Display Robert’s shoe right in the center of your best window, insert the picture and write-up about Robert in your newspaper and you will be agreeably surprised at the attention this shoe will attract to your store.”

53. In 1938, the Wadlow family filed a federal lawsuit in court in St. Joseph, Mo., against a Barnes Hospital doctor and the New York Times for libel. They said the doctor described Robert as “moody and mean” and “surly, inattentive and resentful” during a visit. They lost the suit.

54. The Wadlow family filed another libel suit against Time magazine, but that was dismissed. Harold Jr. later told Brannan, the author of “Boy Giant”, that the family knew that they wouldn’t win the suits but wanted an apology, which they got from Time magazine. That helped them cope with pain and hurt feelings.

55. Robert took being different in stride. In 1937, he told a reporter with the Chicago Evening American: “I have gotten used to being stared at. To resent it would only make folks unhappy, including myself. Some people say unkind things, of course. I thought it over long ago and decided to ignore them. The worst you can say about them is that they are thoughtless.”

56. Harold Kirsch did public relations with International Shoe Co., traveled with Robert, and sometimes double-dated with him. “I’d make a date and then I’d ask the girl if she could line up her tallest girlfriend,” he told the Post-Dispatch in 1985. “I said, ‘I have this buddy who’s kind of tall.’” He said Robert was always a gentleman and had a fine sense of humor.

57. Robert was interested in Alton history and recounted its highlights during a radio interview. “Well, I guess if you let me get started telling you about Alton I could never stop,” he said.

58. Wadlow traveled in cars that had the front passenger seat removed. He could sit in the back seat and extend his legs.

The Alton Giant, Robert Wadlow

18-year-old Robert Wadlow, known as the Alton Giant, stood 8-feet-3 inches tall. Photo courtesy of Steve Cox

59. In 1938, Robert and his father took a trip out west and to the California coast, including Hollywood. He was photographed with movie stars Maureen O’Sullivan and Ann Morriss at MGM Studios and met Jack Benny, though he didn’t appear on his show. He met comic Milton Berle at a Hollywood club. Berle remarked to the crowd: “I’m going to get Robert a job as a stand-in for one of those redwood trees in the Valley of the Giants.”

60. On that same trip, he visited the giant sequoias in California and loved it. “Dad, this is the first time in all my life I ever felt small, and I like it,” he remarked.

61. Wadlow loved children, and on his trips, he took time to visit schools and orphanages.

62. The only time he really got frustrated was when he appeared in crowds, and people would poke his shins to see if he was wearing stilts.

63. He took great pride in his personal appearance, always making sure his tie was straight and his coat dusted off before he spoke in front of a crowd.

64. As part of their appearances, his father spoke to the crowd about his son, and there was often an audience participation aspect. They would often place a silver dollar on top of Robert’s head and challenge a tall man from the crowd to get it. He never could, but they gave the dollar to the man for being a good sport and trying.

65. Sometimes hotels put two beds together to accompany him, but a hotel in Rock Springs, Wyo., had a special bed made for him and used it for publicity long after Wadlow’s visit.

66. Robert had regular checkups with doctors at the Washington University School of Medicine to record his height and weight. Records of the visits are still on file at the Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives.

67. Wadlow was healthy over most of his life but had trouble getting around in his later years, and it was hard to feel much in his lower legs and feet. He used a cane as he got older.

68. On Feb. 21, 1940, on the eve of what was to be his last birthday, a newspaper reported his height at 8 feet 9 inches. He was traveling in Florida on an advertising tour.

69. Robert died on July 15, 1940, in a hotel room after a parade appearance in Manistee, Mich. A poorly fitting brace caused a blister on his ankle. The blister became infected and he ran a high fever.

70. Robert’s last words were: “The doctor says I won’t get home for the ... celebration.” He was referring to the golden anniversary party to be held for his grandparents.

71. He was 490 pounds and 8 feet, 11.1 inches when he died. His casket was 10 feet 6 inches long and weighed almost 500 pounds, and required 18 pallbearers to carry.

The burial of the Alton Giant

Robert Wadlow was buried in a 10-foot long steel casket that required 18 pallbearers on July 19, 1940. Photo courtesy of Steve Cox

72. More than 41,000 visitors passed through Streeper Funeral Home (now Elias-Smith Funeral Home) over two days.

73. So many people filed through the funeral home that workers there had to replace the carpet.

74. His casket protruded two feet from the rear of the hearse, and the extension was covered in black velvet for the trip to the cemetery.

75. He’s buried in a family plot in Upper Alton Cemetery. He was entombed in a reinforced concrete vault to ensure nobody would dig up his body for experimentation, a fear that he and his family always had.

76. Soon after Robert died, his mother burned many of his personal items and clothing to ensure they wouldn’t be resold for publicity reasons. The family simply wanted privacy.

77. Wadlow’s tombstone says his name, dates of birth and death, and the words: “At rest.”

78. Harold Wadlow, Robert’s father, went on to serve as mayor of Alton from 1945 to 1947.

79. In 2013, a Wadlow shoe was brought in to “Antiques Roadshow” and was valued at $1,500-$2,500 at auction.

80. The Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau has an oversized birthday card for Robert at their visitors center for guests to sign for his 100th birthday.

81. The Alton Museum of History and Art often receives birthday cards for him. One year, they received a card addressed simply to Robert Wadlow, no address, and it made its way to the museum.

82. One letter made its way from Warren, Ohio, to Robert in 1936. It was simply addressed “8 foot, 3 ¾ inches, Alton, Illinois.”

February 2003: Wadlow's chair

Jessica Harder, 13, (from left) and Drew Emerick, 9, play on a replica of a chair built to fit of Robert Wadlow, the Alton Giant. The chair and statue are in a park off College Avenue, Alton. Jessica is the daughter of Julie and Dan Harder of Alton, and Drew is the son of Sheila and Dean Emerick of Bethalto, Illinois. Archive photo by Sam Leone

83. Sandy Allen came to Alton 20 years ago to mark Wadlow’s 80th birthday. At the time, she was 7 feet 7 inches tall and was the world’s tallest woman.

84. The Upper Alton Association hosts a free “Rockin’ with Robert” concert series three times during the summer at the Robert Wadlow statue.

85. The Robert Wadlow Municipal Golf Course is now the Alton Regional Multimodal Transportation Center for trains and buses. It opened in September. There is a mention of Wadlow in a historical timeline of Alton in the waiting and reception area.

86. You can see shoes that Robert once wore or distributed for the shoe company at several places across the country, including Fast Eddie’s Bon Air in Alton, the St. Louis Science Center, the Hayes Family Shoe Store in Cuba, Mo., Pike’s Place Market in Seattle and the Alton Museum of History and Art.

87.  Tall Clubs International is a group of social clubs for tall people. Women have to be 5 feet 10 inches and men 6 feet 2 inches to join. The local group, the St. Louis Tip Toppers, disbanded a few years ago but considered Wadlow an icon.

88. One of the area’s first websites, altonweb.com, went live in 1995 and featured Robert Wadlow. It got more than 200,000 visitors in three years — a big deal at the time.

89. Not only does Wadlow hold the world record for the world’s tallest person, he holds the world record for the biggest feet (37 AA shoes, about 3/4 as tall as a newspaper page).

Ripley's Believe It or Not! Wadlow exhibit

Samantha Brick (left) and Jason Fivecoat with the exhibits department of the St. Louis Science Center install a glass box over a plaster cast of Robert Wadlow's head that is being put out as part of the Ripley's Believe It or Not! exhibition at the St. Louis Science Center in September 2015. Archive photo By David Carson

90. He also holds the world record for the largest hands ever (12.75 inches from the wrist to the tip of his middle finger).

91.  John “Bud” Rogan is the second tallest human in recorded history at 8 feet 9 inches. He lived in Tennessee and died in 1905.

92. The tallest living human being is Sultan Kosen, 35, of Turkey, who measures 8 feet 2.8 inches.

93. The shortest person ever recorded is Chandra Bahadur Dangi of Nepal, who was 21.5 inches. He died in 2015.

94. Ripley Entertainment owns close to 50 statues of Robert Wadlow, both animatronic and static ones, says a company spokeswoman. There’s one in each of their 30 Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditoriums, including the one in Branson, Mo. Ripley is also turning 100 this year.

95. The Old Bakery Beer Co. in Alton will celebrate Wadlow’s birthday from 5-9 p.m. Thursday with a party and a release of a Double IPA called Gentle Giant along with a commemorative glass. The band Miss Jubilee will bring the crowd back to Wadlow’s heyday with music from the ’20s and ’30s. 

96. The Alton Museum of History and Art will also host an all-day birthday bash Thursday, with birthday cake, extended hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and free admission. They’ve also refreshed their Robert Wadlow display and added new artifacts.

97. The Great Rivers Tap and Grill in Alton will host a birthday party Thursday with a special giant-sized appetizer menu, drink specials and music by Bob & Me from 6 to 8 p.m.

98. Every Wednesday, the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau Facebook page will feature a clue with a photo about Wadlow to encourage people to visit places associated with him. At each location, a hand-painted rock with the image of Wadlow will be hidden, and the first person to find the rock gets to keep it. Follow the #RobertRocks hashtag on social media.

99. Follow the #RememberingWadlow hashtag and post with it to share photos and stories on social media. The CVB will gather the stories and create a memory book, which they will donate to the Hayner Public Library at the end of the year.

100. No date has been set, but this summer the CVB plans to host “A Day in the Life With Robert” event that will encourage kids and parents to enjoy games Robert did as a kid, such as marbles and baseball. They will host a lemonade stand to honor Wadlow, who had a stand of his own.

Sources include: The Alton Museum of History and Art, “The Gentleman Giant” by Frederick Fadner and “Boy Giant” by Dan Brannan.

20 Times St. Louis area broke the record

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