EDITOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Pam Bierman at Hayner Public Library: Genealogy & Local History Library, Brian Combs at Alton Museum of History and Art Inc. and Justin Parmley at Franklin Masonic Lodge for their assistance developing this spotlight.
Everyone in the Alton area just thought of Robert as “a friend who happened to be taller than anyone else,” as noted by one classmate’s audio clip in the DVD documentary “The Story of Robert,” published in 1991 and distributed by Turquoise Film/Video Productions Inc. “He had such a pleasant smile,” the unidentified classmate also noted about Robert.
Those who have documented his life frequently recognize his pleasant smile, positive outlook, and how he touched the world with his friendly gentleness. In fact, Robert was given the nickname Gentle Giant because of his easygoing nature, despite constant challenges and chronic pain.
Former classmate Ray Baird said Robert was “mischievous, just like any of the other boys.” For laughs, Baird said, “He would put your hat on a chandelier where you couldn’t reach it.” A bit of a jokester, Robert was once asked during a radio interview whether he was annoyed when people stared at him. His reply: “No, I just overlook them.”
Another former Alton High classmate, Ruby Harris, shared in the video documentary that Robert was “a big blond-haired boy with blue eyes that was easy to blush.” He loved ice cream, enjoyed photography and had a series of collections that included stamps, matchbooks, and rocks. At 17, he ran a lemonade stand in front of his family’s Brown Street home. The next summer, he ran a similar stand at the 1936 Illinois State Fair in Springfield.
Robert could be seen all around Alton — no pun intended. He loved his hometown and just wanted to be as normal as possible, despite drawing attention wherever he roamed. At Alton High, he was the advertising manager for the “Tatler” yearbook. He was also in the senior play and a member of the German and stamp clubs. He was also a member of the Alton YMCA, Boy Scouts, Main Street United Methodist Church and Order of the DeMolay.
At a 1936 DeMolay conference in Kansas City, Wadlow met Walt Disney, one of the original seven DeMolay members. Records of their meeting indicate Wadlow “outshined” Disney, and that their meeting left an indelible impression upon Wadlow.
Noted as well through several key historical research pieces was Robert’s above-average IQ. A former schoolteacher, unidentified in the video documentary, said, “It was hard to see him as just another pupil, although he did play and act like the other children. He was an ambitious young boy with good grades, a higher-than-average IQ.”
Perhaps it was this higher IQ that helped him to understand people better than average. Robert would later come to an insightful conclusion he shared when asked during an interview about how to respond to people’s reactions to him. His reply was, “Ninety-nine percent of the people are OK; the other percent are just plain ignorant, so why should I let them worry me?”
At age 21, Robert petitioned to join the Franklin Masonic Lodge in Alton after reaching the DeMolay age limit. By 22, he had achieved status as a master Mason in the lodge. His size 25 Masonic ring became one of his most prized possessions, although he only had the opportunity to enjoy it for a brief time.
Alton resident Ruth Bell, a historian for the area, shared memories her mother told her. Bell’s mother was Helen Edwards Mitchell, a classmate of Robert’s.
“Her locker was next to him,” Bell said. “One story mom shared was that you had to be careful when walking down the school hallway, given the space he needed to swing his arms and move. You could easily end up hit from just being in his line of movement.”
Bell has provided talks about Wadlow throughout the years at the Alton Museum of History and Art, and has gathered many comments of others who note the same sentiments about Robert. She said Robert would have been in the Alton High Class of 1935 but had to sit out a semester because of a foot infection, causing him to graduate in the January 1936 class instead.
The stories about Robert seem never-ending around Alton and beyond. Tales have been passed down through generations, and while most of Robert’s own age group has passed, their children now have their parents’ stories to share. For example, Alton City Clerk Mary Boulds remembers her father, Rodger Penning, talking about walking to school every day with young Robert.
After graduating from Alton High, Robert enrolled at nearby Shurtleff College, planning to study pre-law. One year into his studies, he had to leave the school because moving between the classrooms and buildings, and especially in the winter with icy sidewalks, proved too difficult.
Shurtleff College is now the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Dental Medicine on College Avenue in Alton. It is also home to the life-size bronze statue of Robert, sculpted by local artist Ned Giberson. A life-size bronze replica of Robert’s Masonic chair is near the statue. His childhood home from Monroe Street in Alton, along with the home’s carriage house, have also been moved to the grounds, just beyond the statue and the chair.
After leaving Shurtleff College, Robert worked with Harold Kirsh, a field representative for International Shoe Co., as a goodwill ambassador for the company.
“He was always a very neat and clean person,” Kirsh said. “He knew the importance of appearance and how he looked. And his sense of humor was tremendous.”
Kirsh said he and Wadlow would go out on double dates, usually taking their female companions out for an evening of dinner and dancing.
“Robert did not eat any more than anyone else,” he said.
Kirsh added Robert had a special interest in children and would often take the time to play with them and say hello.
TOMORROW: Passing into history