This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2008 - As his first assignment for the Alton Evening Telegraph, my grandfather, Robert Graul, took a photo of Alton High School's Class of 1936. Town giant Robert Wadlow was a graduate. After that experience piqued his fascination, Graul spent the next four years capturing the man in family, social and political settings all around Alton. By the time of Wadlow's death in 1940, my grandfather had managed to accrue the largest collection of original Wadlow photographs in the world.
As a kid, I always knew my grandfather held some sort of status in town, but wasn't exactly sure how big it was until I visited a kitschy museum in Niagara Falls where yet another replica of Wadlow's chair was featured alongside dozens of photographs - photographs whose originals were at my grandfather's house up the street from where I grew up.
Alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louis XIV, and Franklin Roosevelt, my grade school taught us about Wadlow as if he were equally notable. In Alton, he's alive in the museum, with the Masons, in chiseled bronze. The town also perpetuates his legend with an appearance (wood cut-out style) in Alton's impressive light display each season.
In addition to Alton's fame as a place to visit for scenic byways, drinking, gambling and ghosts, this small river town of 31,000 holds a treasure that still intrigues people all over the world - even the locals.
At the age of 5, Robert Wadlow stood 5'4." At 12, he had grown to 6'11." By the age of 21, the year before his death, he measured 8'8" and weighed 491 pounds. Caused by an over-secretion of the pituitary gland's growth hormone, Wadlow's Giantism is now, as it was during his life in the 1920s and '30s, an extremely rare occurrence. It earned him the status as World's Tallest Man.
Wadlow was born an unastounding 8 pounds, 6 ounces to average-size parents in February 1918. He began growing abnormally large within the first year of his life. He operated as normally as a child of his proportion could, with the help of specially made shoes, desks and men's clothing, and impressed the community with this kindness and service as a member of the Boy Scouts. Wadlow toured with the Ringling Brothers Circus and agreed to many appearances locally and around the country.
He was also an active DeMolay member with the Masons, whose lodge in upper Alton dedicated a room to their tallest member. Inside are dozens of framed photographs, laminated newsclippings and artifacts such as pamphlets from his graduation, one of his shoes and a replica of his handcrafted Masonic ring (the real one is still in the family). The best part of this room, however, is the massive plush armchair that was custom-made for Wadlow and consumes the average person.
Up the street and around the corner is Alton's Museum of History and Modern Art, which has also given an entire room to Wadlow and showcases photographs, timelines, mementos and a film about his life. But perhaps the most famous of Alton's Wadlow attractions rests on the plot of land directly across from the Museum, where visitors go to see Wadlow's childhood home, life-size bronze statue and a replication of his chair - the one in the Masonic Lodge. Tourists from all over the country visit the site, which has been featured by Oprah, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and the Discovery Channel.
After years of carrying such an incredible amount of weight, Wadlow suffered many foot injuries (broken bones and blisters) that eventually left his feet partially numb and prevented him from detecting pain. In 1940 he entered the hospital with a serious infection caused by the chaffing of a brace he wore around his ankle. Wadlow died on July 15 of that same year.
On the 22nd of each February, Alton's Museum of History and Art invites school children and the general public (some of whom personally knew the guest of honor) to celebrate the birthday of their hometown hero, Robert Wadlow. The tradition includes a cake, card-making and, of course, singing Happy Birthday. The museum also has a connection with a school in Texas, that likes to watch the celebration via internet, and, in previous years, has sent Wadlow a card "as big as a desk," recalls museum coordinator Charlene Johnson.
This February, Wadlow would have been 91 years old.
Sarah Truckey is a freelance writer.