People still refer to him as "The Alton Giant."
Through the years since his death, Robert Pershing Wadlow, known as the tallest man in recorded history, has evolved into a most unlikely Midwestern folk hero.
He measured an unfathomable 8-feet-11 when he died on July 15, 1940, at only 22 years old. In his three-piece suits with hat and cane, Wadlow was genteel and mild-mannered, an American celebrity as the Thirties came to a close.
Born on Feb. 22, 1918 in Alton, he was a baby of average weight who grew to become a true human anomaly by kindergarten. He lived (some say suffered) with an overactive pituitary gland, which pushed him past every growth chart known, with alarming speed.
The fantastic growth of a young corn-fed boy in Southern Illinois hit newspapers around the country. At age 10, Robert weighed 210 pounds and stood 6-foot-5, much taller than his father. The giant grade school boy sported size 17 shoes, with much of his clothing requiring tailoring and custom fitting for the rest of his life.
These essentials became an expensive necessity during the Depression, and his unusual accommodations proved a mounting challenge for the middle-class Wadlows. All across the country, people read in disbelief about this inconceivable child — including the famed Robert Ripley, who came to investigate the human wonder in person. Newsreel photographers and newspaper reporters also came knocking. And then the doctors.
Because of his unwieldy stature, Wadlow was sensationalized during the 1920s and 1930s. Like Charles Lindbergh or Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, he can be considered one of America's first victims of the press and paparazzi. And without even trying, this curiously likable goliath of the Midwest forged an unparalleled legacy. St. Louis and Southern Illinois were his stomping grounds, where newspaper photographers, newsreel cameramen and just plain folks documented him for the masses.
And so, he became friends with the lens and posed for photos and grew accustomed to stares and audible gasps everywhere he stepped.
One famous photograph shows the young man standing in his family foyer with the chandelier resting on his shoulder — it's found in countless editions of the Guinness Book of World's Records and Ripley's Believe it or Not compendiums.
Wadlow is, at the very least, a vivid memory for anyone who ever caught an actual glimpse of him.
"Bob was an ordinary guy in school," remembers Robert Landiss, 91, of Godfrey, who attended school with Wadlow in Alton and became a fellow member of the DeMolay youth fraternity.
"Sometimes when he walked in the hallway, he would steady his stride by coming up next to you and putting his hand on your shoulder or even over the top of your head, just to muss up your hair," Landiss said. "He was a good spirited guy, very likable. When he used the stairs, he had to walk almost sideways to manage it because his feet were so huge, and he had to do it carefully. It was something to see."
By all accounts, Robert Wadlow was a passive type, privately contemplating his own fate as his body betrayed him and broke all records. Coping with adversity was a way of life for this young man. As an adult, his size 36AA shoes cost nearly $100 a pair, the equivalent of about $1,500 today. Ceiling fans were his enemy as he toured the nation and visited more than 40 states advertising Peters Shoes for the International Shoe Co. in St. Louis.
While appearing at a Fourth of July parade in Manistee, Mich., the giant became ill. An infection had developed from an abrasion on his ankle caused by a newly fitted ankle support brace. Wadlow's temperature rose drastically as the parade slowly moved through the streets. The situation became especially desperate when his father could not remove him from the crowded parade route to get him to a doctor.
No treatments diminished the infection, and because he did not wish to be moved, Wadlow wasted away painfully in a hotel room 500 miles from home. Tragically, he missed the cure to his fatal blood poisoning by a year or two, when antibiotics first became widely available in the United States.
Robert's highly publicized wake and funeral enveloped Alton during those oven-baked July days, drawing throngs of people who waited in 24-hour lines to bid farewell to the giant — those who knew him and those who were just curious to see him in death.
"I was one of the DeMolay honor guards at the funeral," remembers Landiss. "We stood next to the casket in shifts as thousands of people came through."
An excess of 30,000 filed past his 10-foot, half-ton open casket which was lifted by 18 pallbearers in order to place him in his final resting place in Oakwood Cemetery in Upper Alton on July 19, 1940.
What survives is just a few oversized relics proving Robert Wadlow's brief existence, some of which can be viewed at a display devoted to his memory in Alton's Museum of History and Art. An impressive life size statue outside the museum is marveled at daily and photographed by thousands of tourists each year.
Note: This story was originally published in 2010.