Alton Evening Telegraph from Alton, Illinois on July 13, 1965 · Page 5
Get access to this page with a Free Trial

Alton Evening Telegraph from Alton, Illinois · Page 5

Alton, Illinois
Issue Date:
Tuesday, July 13, 1965
Page 5
Start Free Trial

TUESDAY, JULY 13, 1965 ALTON EVENING TELEGRAPH PAUfc By DON MORRISON Telegraph Sattt Writer fwenty'five years separate Robert Wadlow from the newest generation of Altonians — but there is little left to acquaint, them with the man who made their town noted. The shy, spectacled young giant, eight feet, 11.1 inches tall when he died 25 years ago this coming Thursday, is still the tallest man In history. He was born, educated and buried in Alton. There is a handsome marker at his long narrow tomb in Upper Alton Cemetery. In Main Street Methodist Church there Is a pipe organ he helped buy and which bears his name. There are a few photographs of him still around, a few newspaper clippings, and a few copies of a book about him published shortly after his death. That's about all the evidence of the nationwide sensation Robert Wadlow once created — but he probably would not be disappointed at his oblivion. He never sought publicity, from the day reporters learned about a boy too big for his school desk. The story, until the day of his death in a Michigan hotel room, was carried by almost every major newspaper in the country. "He never had any privacy except in his own home," said his father, Harold F. Wadlow, mayor of Alton from 1945-1949. "But Robert never complained." The man who weighed almost 5GO pounds when he died weighed a normal eight pounds, six ounces when he was born Feb. 22, 1918 —on Washington's birthday — in a small frame house on Monroe Street in Alton. When he was six months old he weighed about 30 pounds, substantially more than normal, but still no cause for special notice. At 18 months, he weighed a hefty 62 pounds. His parents apparently didn't bother to measure his length then. He continued to grow at a fantastic rate, reaching six feel, two and one-half inches and 195 pounds — larger than many full- grown men — by the time he was eight years old. It was then that he first attracted public notice. "We learned there was a boy at Milton School in Alton who was too big for his desk," ran an account in a St. ouis paper. From then on, Robert was constantly pursued by reporters, doctors, circus promoters and thousands of curious fnas. He tried to live as normal a life as possible and do the things most boys his age enjoyed. He collected stamps, matchbooks, and even took up photography. He joined the Alton YMCA when he was 11, and became the world's tallest Boy Scout at seven feet, four inches, when he was 13. He swam, fished, played with his little brother, Harold Jr., and loved ice cream. "It's my favorite food," he said. When he was 17 he opened a soft drink stand in front of his house on Brown Street. The next summer he operated a similar stand at the 1936 Illinois State Fair in Springfield. A Telegraph story about the second venture said, "Robert was kept busy writing his autograph for patrons." He was eight feet, four inches tall then, and weighed 390 pounds. Earlier that year he talked the manager of the Young's Dry Goods Co. into hiring him as a salesclerk during the Christ- a Sensitive, Gentle Giant TALL CUSTOMER Robert dwarfed everybody around him. H. Goulding's Sons jewelers sold the young Here he is shown on an infrequent shopping; giant his Masonic ring shortly after his 21st trip with a store proprietor little more than birthday, when he became the "world's" one-half his size. Robert L. Goulding of E. tallest Mason." mas rush. "Robert has shown ability as a salesman," the manager said, "but first he sold himself to me." He showed "far above average intelligence" in his schoolwork, the late C. C. Hanna, former principal of Alton Sen- , ior High School once said. "His fellow pupils love him because of his unselfish and cheerful nature." Robert received a scholarship to Shurtleff College of Alton and enrolled after he was graduated from high school. He planned 'to study' pre-law. He , quit after a year — mostly, his father said, because he had trouble moving from building to building between classes. It was often difficult for the college to provide adequate seating arrangements for its then eight-feet-four-inch-tall student. Robert lived in a world built for men three feet shorter than he was. He had to bend down to go through doorways, stoop to peer in mirrors and fold almost double to enter his parents' special, converted limousine. He had to climb stairs sideways to crowd his huge feet on the steps, duck to escape low hanging ceiling fans, and walk down the street sidestepping store awnings. Clothes were also a problem. The size 37 shoes Robert eventually required cost his b 1 u e- collar worker father $100 a pair. It required three times the normal amount of cloth to CLEARANCE PROBLEM Robert had to duck almost every time he went through a doorway. He also had trouble with sidewalk store awnings, chandeliers, and electric ceiling fans. make the boy a suit. Robert did, however, eat only slightly more food than most people. His modest appetite was often distorted to gluttonous proportions by magazines and newspapers. His father eventually had to quit his job as a foreman at Shell Petroleum Corp. in Wood River when Robert was 18. He became the boy's manager for an avalanche of offers for tours, promotions and personal appearances. / The pair soon made a one- year, nationwide tour of schools, theaters and lecture halls. When Robert was 19 he joined the Ringling Bros. Circus for a dignified act as a main attraction. He made a six-week appearance in the East with the circus. When he was 20 he traveled all over the West Coast as a goodwill ambassador for a subsidiary of International Shoe Co., St. Louis. The firm thereafter provided him with h i s huge shoes free of charge. In the four years Robert and his father traveled, they logged 300,000 miles, visiting over 800 towns in 41 states. In 1937 the Wadlows demanded $350,000 damages in three suits with the American Medical Assn , Time Magazine and a Missouri doctor for an allegedly defamatory medical report. The'case came to court in 1939 with & mildly sensational one-week trial In St. Joseph, Mo. The trial ended in defeat and all three suits were eventually dropped. Robert was remarkably healthy as a boy. He escaped most of the minor accidents and illnesses that almost all young children experience. He did, however, have considerable trouble throughout his life with his large feet. He was treated at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis no fewer than five times for foot Infections and broken bones. According to one medical report, "He had little sensation in his feet and did not feel chafing until blisters formed." Blisters did form when a brace on a weak left ankle began to chafe during a hot July in 1940. The 22-year-old giant was making a personal appearance at the National Forest Fes- • tival in a small lumber town called Manlstee, Mich. Robert, as always, cheerfully accommodated the curious crowds who came to see him. But his father could tell the ankle was bothering him. Infection set in, and on the Fourth of July, the big day of the festival, a doctor confined him to a hotel bed, unable to make accommodations at t h e tiny local hospital. On July 14, 10 fever- wracked days after he took to his hotel bed, doctors performed an emergency operation on his foot. Then they gave him a blood transfusion. His temperature began to rise still further, hovering around 106 degrees the remainder of the day. Robert spoke his last words at 10:30 p.m. to his parents: "The doctor — says I won't — get — home — get home — for the celebration." He was referring to a family reunion he wanted badly to attend in Alton at the end of the month. He fell asleep then, and at 1:30 a.m. he died quietly. Robert's body was brought back to Alton two days later for burial. An estimated 40,000 persons filed past his bier at the Streeper Funeral Home. Another 10,000 showed up at the funeral home for services July 19, and later that day for Masonic burial services at Oakwood Cemetery, now Upper Alton Cemetery. All city businesses were closed for the funeral. The 1,000 - pound casket required twelve pallbearers assisted by eight other men. It was placed in a 12-feel-long reinforced concrete tomb. There were rumors the body would be stolen, bu* there was no theft. The next day a Telegraph editorial said, "Bob was a good son, a good citizen, studious, religious and a wonderful friend to have." TIGHT SQVWZE Automobiles presented a special problem for Rob- ert was 20. he and bis father made an auto tour of the ert Here he is shown trying to squeeze into his father's West and the Pacific Coast. A month before they left •pedal, converted limousine. Motorists who passed Rob- Robert was in a two-car accident while riding with a friend ert as he walked the 10 blocks to and from school every near Wood River, but escaped unhurt, day would think twice about giving him a lift When Rob- I, COMPANIONS Robert had two brothers and two sisters, favorite of whom was Harold Jr. The two were constant companions. Robert frequently enjoyed babysitting with the youngest Wadlow at their home at 3406 Brown St. and later at 2416 Sanford Ave. Robert's father planned to build for the giant a dream home with 12-feet ceilings and proportionally large furniture, but Robert died before it was begun. His little brother got into this picture unplanned. Robert was eight feet, 11.1 inches tall when he died, and weighed a little more than 490 pounds. He was 22 years old. He had been the tallest person in the world since 1936, when, at the age of 18, he "outgrew" an eight-feet-four-i n c h Irish giant, who died 60 years before. Medical authorities said Robert's astounding size was caused by an over-active pituitary gland, the pea-sized gland at the base of the brain that controls growth. Robert's parents are both normal sized. There are no tall people on either side of the family. Robert was the oldest of five children, the rest of whom were of average height. At the time of his death, the Wadlows turned down offers to donate Robert's body to medical science. Most of his person- al effects were destroyed. Robert had expressed ambitions to open his own retail shoe store here ever since he started making appearances for the St. Louis shoe firm. Six months after Robert's death, his father opened a shoe store on College avenue in Upper Alton. Wadlow was elected mayor in 1945, defeating the incumbent Leo .1. Struif. He sold the shoe store soon after the election. Wadlow was defeated when he tried for re-election in 1949 and lost again in 1953. He entered the 1957 mayoral race, but dropped out when voters approved the council • manager form of government. Wadlow, now 72, lives with his wife at 3520 Oscar St. "Children still stop in now and then to ask us about Robert," he said. Wadlow reported he has been approached several times by authors wanting to write a book about his son. "I'm not considering any of the offers," he said, "and I don't think there'll be any books in the future." Wadlow collaporated with a Shurtleff College professor in 1941, shortly after the boy's death, to write "The Gentleman Giant." "As far as we know, Robert is still the tallest person in medical history," Wadlow said.' "There's a boy in California, but I don't know exactly how tall he is. He's not nearly as tall as Robert was, though." Wadlow said he didn't know if there would be so much nationwide interest in his son today, when people are preoccupied with news of the cold war, space travel, and other more pressing topics. The gentle young man who never sought publicity, but occupied his unique place in the nation's eye with dignity, is credited with giving Alton some renown. Few people really knew what life was like for the gentle giant, who bore the burden of his abnormal size cheerfully. Nowhere is it recorded that Robert ever complained about his fate. But a statement Robert made when he was 14 about his favorite little brother, Harold Jr., may provide an insight: "No," he said. "I don't want my little brother to be as big as I am. He'll have more fun if he isn't." When Robert was at the peak of his fame, wherever Altonians would travel about the U.S. — and even in some foreign countries — they would frequently be identified as being from "the home of the Alton Giant." GIANT RING Robert's huge Masonic ring gives some idea of the size of bis immense hands, described by one doctor as "artistis- tically beautiful." Unlike many giants, Robert was almost perfectly proportioned. The size-25 ring was made of solid gold, weighed two ounces. Most men require a size 9 or 10 ring. The largest ring worn in Alton today is a size Id. He Amazed Everyone THROUGHOUT Robert Wadlow's short life there were people who just couldn't get over his tremendous size. One day. while Robert was walking in downtown Dubuque, Iowa, he was arrested for creating a whopping traffic jam. Police marched him off to the shieriff's office. But the poor sheriff didn't know what to do with the then 8-foot-6-inch giant. Finally he made Robert an honorary deputy sheriff, with permission to create traffic jam wherever he went. WHEN ROBERT was 8 years old, a bus driver tried to make the boy pay full fare. "But he's only in the third grade," his father protested. "Prove it," challenged the conductor "Okay, drive us three blocks out of your way to our home and I'll get you his birth certificate," bis father replied. The driver reejcted the offer, and told them to go ahead and sit down. Later Robert met the same kind of opposition from a train conductor who demanded full fare for the 6-foot-two-inch boy. "Ten bucks says he's only eight," the elder Wadlow offered Th« conductor backed down. Robert rode free. After that, his father paid full fare for the boy, in order to avoid arguments. WHEN HE was 14 years old, Robert caused quite a stir at a circus on Riverfront Park. A barker was calling attention to a sideshow giant, who at 7 feet, 4 inches tall was billed as the tallest man in the world." Robert sauntered up to the crowd around the astonished barker. "How tall are you, son," the man gasped. "Sfven feet. 8 inches, sir. I'm going in to see your giant," Robert announced. "No you're not. Our giant is coming out to see you," the barker said, and then stuck his head inside the curtain. "Hey, Shorty, come on out and see a real giant." ON ONLY ONE occasion is it reported that Robert ever struck anyone. A burly sailor marched up to Robert and felt his legs to see if they were stilts. "I hit him with the back of my hand." Robert said. "1 didn't hit him hard. He wasn't knocked unconscious or anything. But he didn't bother me anymore " ROBERT HAD trouble ordering clothing to mil. Besides the expense of buying clothes three limes larger than normal, there was the problem of having every thing special-made. "They sent my measurements in for a suit," Robert once said, "but the company kept sending them back saying they were § mistake." ,

Get access to

  • The largest online newspaper archive
  • 15,900+ newspapers from the 1700s–2000s
  • Millions of additional pages added every month

Try it free