‘Alton Giant’ would have turned 100 on Thursday
This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
Robert Pershing Wadlow, also known as "The Alton Giant," was born on Feb. 22, 1918. If he was still living, Wadlow's 100th birthday would have been this Thursday.
Wadlow's size, a world record-setting 8-foot-11-inches tall, was caused by a pituitary gland problem. Wadlow grew larger his entire life, until he died from blood poisoning at age 22.
As a 1-year-old, Wadlow weighed 45 pounds. At 8 years old, he was 6-foot tall. When he died, in addition to being the Guinness World Record holder for world's tallest man, Wadlow weighed 439 pounds and wore a size 40 shoe.
Wadlow's height record still stands today. In recorded history, there has never been anyone taller.
Mina Cornine, Wadlow's first cousin from Roxana, shared her memories of Wadlow with the Belleville News-Democrat in an interview in February 1993. Cornine died in 1998.
"To us, he was normal," Cornine said in the 1993 interview. "We knew he was big, but we were so used to it. If somebody would say something to us about his height, it would hurt us."
Because of his extraordinary size, strangers, who didn't know him, thought Wadlow was on stilts. "People would kick him in the legs," Cornine said.
Wadlow wouldn't retaliate the abuse, earning the reputation of a gentle giant.
"He should be remembered for the kind, gentle way he had about him," Cornine said. "He never said a bad word about anyone."
In a booklet about Wadlow's life by Sandra Hamilton called "Looking Back and Up," Wadlow is quoted as saying, "99 percent of the people are ok; the other percent are just plain ignorant, so why should I let them worry me?"
Cornine recalled picking bluebells with Wadlow on the river bluffs in Grafton. She said they were one of Wadlow's favorite flowers.
Wadlow weighed so much, Cornine recalled, that his family took him to a neighboring farm to weigh him on the scales used for livestock. No one else had a scale that could go high enough.
Because of his size, Wadlow struggled with moving through a world that seemed too small. He didn't fit through doorways and stairs were too small for his feet. His family remembered Wadlow often falling under his own weight.
Wadlow's footsteps even sounded larger than average. "One of the things I really remember was hearing him when he walked," Cornine said. "It had kind of a different sound when he put his foot down. One foot made two noises - like if you'd sit the heel of your hand down on the table and then your fingers."
Wadlow made average men look tiny. When Wadlow visited the Belleville Daily Advocate newspaper, which merged with the Belleville News-Democrat in the late 1950s, the linotype machine operators looked like children while standing next to him.
Tom "Earl" Griesbaum, an Alton High School classmate of Wadlow, sat next to the giant during German class. In a BND story from February 1990 by Cecilia Dames, Griesbaum said he and Wadlow would cheat together.
Griesbaum said in 1990, "He had a pocket book translation of 'William Tell.' He kept it in his hand. That's how big his hand was. When it came time for us to translate, we'd both read from the book in his hand."
Griesbaum died in 2015 at age 97.
After high school, Wadlow briefly attended Shurtleff College in Alton, which has since closed. The Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine, associated with the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, now sits on that site.
Then, in order to support his family, Wadlow accepted a contract to work for the Peters Shoe Co.
Representing the shoe company, Wadlow traveled to more than 800 cities in the United States, Mexico and Canada. His job included appearing in parades, pictures, advertisements and signing autographs.
Through his extensive travels, Wadlow became an unofficial ambassador for Alton.
During a parade in Manistee, Michigan, on July 4, 1940, Wadlow started to feel sick.
One of the braces he used to support his legs had rubbed a sore. He was unaware of the problem because he suffered from numbness in his limbs.
Wadlow died of blood poisoning from the wound at 1:30 a.m. on July 15, 1940. He was 22 years old.
According to an Associated Press report, his casket was 10-foot-6-inches long, weighed around 1,000 pounds and more than 12 men were needed to carry it.
An estimated 40,000 people viewed Wadlow's casket and 10,000 came to his funeral.
Wadlow's casket was lowered into a reinforced concrete vault in Upper Alton Cemetery and more concrete was poured on top. The family wanted to protect Wadlow's remains from potential thieves.
Cornine said, in 1993, "When you get to thinking about it, at last he's resting. No more the struggle of trying to walk or sit down or get up. He had a lot of good times. But he had a lot of struggles."
In 1985, residents of Alton collected more than $50,000 to construct a life-size bronze statue of Wadlow on the campus of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine. The statue was created by Ned Giberson, a sculptor from Alton.
When the memorial was unveiled on Oct. 20, 1985, Sen. Sam Vadalabene, D-Edwardsville, read "The Wadlow Day" proclamation, which was signed by then-Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson:
"Whereas, Robert Pershing Wadlow, a native of Alton, is recognized as the world's tallest individual; and,
"Whereas, Wadlow was an ambassador for the Alton area during his lifetime, traveling nationwide; and,
"Whereas, known as the 'Gentle Giant,' he was awed for his stature and well-liked and respected for his kind, even-tempered and gentle nature; and,
"Whereas, service organizations, private clubs and individuals have raised enough money to commission a sculptor to memorialize this great human; and,
"Whereas, the Robert Pershing Wadlow Statue Committee will dedicate the statue on Oct. 20."
Wadlow's life-size statue stands at 2810 College Ave., Alton.
The Associated Press and BND columnist Michelle Meehan contributed to this story.