Remembering Alton's beloved Robert Wadlow, tallest man ever, a century after his birth
Feb. 22, 2018, marks the centennial of the birth of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man who ever lived, and a lifelong resident of Alton.
Wadlow was normal size at birth, but a growth on his pituitary gland caused him to grow rapidly and never stop. By kindergarten, he was 5 feet 4 inches. He grew to 8 feet 11, and 490 pounds, by the time he died at age 22.
Childhood in Alton
Despite his size, his childhood was fairly normal — he joined the Boy Scouts and the Order of Demolay (a youth group connected to the Freemasons), and worked in an ice cream shop.
When he played basketball, he served as the “dropper,” standing by the basket and waiting for teammates to pass him the ball. Lack of sensation in his legs and feet led to mobility issues throughout his life.
Nevertheless, his family and community worked to accommodate his needs. His elementary school built him a custom desk tall enough to fit his knees. When Robert was a teenager, his father took the front seat out of the car so he could drive from the back.
“They made some way to make his life comfortable, and to make him feel normal,” said Brian Combs, president of the Alton Museum of History and Art.
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Touring the Nation
After Wadlow graduated from Alton High School in 1936, he enrolled in nearby Shurtleff College, where he studied pre-law. But he only attended college for a year — by 1937, word had gotten out about the Alton Giant, and the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus recruited him for a national tour.
Wadlow was hesitant about joining the circus, because he and his parents worried he might be portrayed as a freak. But money was tight during the depression, and he wanted to support his family.
He followed up his circus appearance with a nationwide tour sponsored by the International Shoe Company, which supplied him with size 37 and a half shoes for free. When he and his father would drive into town, crowds of thousands would gather.
Though Waslow was gracious about the constant attention he received wherever he went, his favorite place to be was home in Alton.
“He would get burned out sometimes when he was out on the road for so long,” said Dan Brannan, author of Boy Giant, a biography of Wadlow. “He loved Alton. People treated him differently here — he was just one of the folks that lived here.”
On July 6, 1940, Wadlow entered the hospital in Manistee, Michigan. While marching in a parade there, a blister on his foot had become infected. He died just over a week later, unable to return home.
Streeper Funeral Home in Alton was open for three days and three nights during Wadlow’s visitation. Over 41,000 people from around the country came to pay their respects. Wadlow was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, and, to prevent grave robbers, a layer of concrete was poured over his casket.
Alton continues to preserve Wadlow’s memory. The city unveiled a life-size statue in 1985, and the Alton Museum of History and Art keeps an exhibit of his personal belongings.
When it comes to the museum's plans for Wadlow’s centennial, Combs says an online photo collage, as well as a grave site ceremony, are being planned.