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Robert Wadlow with his class at Alton High School.
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Wadlow’s shoes and glasses on display at the Alton Museum of History and Art.
ALTON — Sometimes, a heart is just too big to fit inside a regular-size body.
On July 11, senior citizens who have fond memories of the “Gentle Giant” shared anecdotes with younger Alton residents during the Alton Museum of History and Art’s commemoration of Robert Pershing Wadlow on the 75th anniversary of his death.
The celebration began with visitors taking a tour of the memorial inside the museum before spilling out onto the site of the Robert Wadlow memorial statue on College Avenue. The exhibit looked into Robert’s personal life and childhood, featuring items such as the young man’s shoes and high school cap and gown as well as charts and photos chronicling his life. The photos of Robert towering over his family and classmates are just as striking and unusual as they were on the day they were taken.
A documentary, “The Story of Robert,” delighted guests as they took a journey through the story of the man who will forever be one of the most popular entries in the Guinness Book of World Records for his 8-foot-11-inch frame.
Robert was born Feb. 22, 1918, in Alton. Hyperplasia of the pituitary gland, which causes abnormally high human growth hormone, caused him to weigh in at a whopping 30 pounds by 6 months of age and tower over his father by age 8.
The film included interviews with some of Robert’s former teachers, who recalled how he had trouble fitting comfortably in his desk at Milton Elementary School.
Robert and his parents were given the option to correct the abnormality but decided against the surgery, as it had the potential to cause more dangerous health concerns.
Although the disorder was impossible not to notice, it certainly did not prevent a normal and healthy life. As a child, Robert was a member of the Boy Scouts and later joined the Freemasons. He also earned his nickname of the “Gentle Giant” thanks to his easygoing nature, kindness and generosity, and positive outlook in the midst of challenge and chronic pain.
After graduating from Alton High School in 1936, he enrolled at Shurtleff College, intending to study law.
In 1940, a leg brace caused an irritation that turned into an infection, causing the young man’s death at the age of 22.
In 1986, a statue of Robert was erected across the street from the museum, further engraving his life and legacy indelibly into the story of Alton.
Following the film, visitors gathered at the statue to listen to guest speakers, including museum president Brian Combs and local author Dan Brannan, who penned the biography “Boy Giant” in 2003.
“I don’t think Robert will ever be forgotten,” Brannan said.
Pastor Debra Hoertel of Main Street Methodist Church, where Wadlow was a member, also spoke. Although the church is no longer in the same building as it was when Robert attended, it honors him with photos in the lobby and fellowship area, Wadlow Hall. Hoertel conducted a brief memorial service, followed by a prayer to honor Robert.
Following the service, several members of the Freemasons from the Franklin Lodge, where Robert was a member, spoke. They described how although his membership was not very long, it certainly was memorable. The lodge required that members be 21 to join, and his death at age 22 ended his time with the Masons rather quickly. Within that year, however, Robert attained the degree of Master Mason.
Today, Robert is buried in the Upper Alton Cemetery alongside his father and brother.
Metropolis may have the claim as the birthplace of Superman, but Alton will always be the home to our own Boy Wonder.