He visited Jefferson City on September 11, 1939. A crowd was already gathered when his car pulled up in front of Chicken Schmidt’s South Side Shoe Store, 124 East Dunklin. Al Case, who as a teenager worked at the shoe store for his uncle Chicken Schmidt, recalled the visit.
The front passenger seat of the car had been removed, and Wadlow sat in the backseat, his long legs extending all the way under the dashboard. It took a while for Wadlow to “uncoil” from the standard size, four-door sedan.
He stood to full height and walked with a cane to a wooden platform, which he mounted, though for him it was certainly unnecessary! There, he greeted folks and posed for photographs. Here he is with his hand on Chicken Schmidt’s head.
Mr. Case remembers Mr. Wadlow coming into the shoe store. Fortunately, the ceiling was ten feet high! When he went to use the facilities, he handed his cane to young Al to hold—it was almost as tall as he was!
Mr. Wadlow toured for Peters Shoes, made by the International Shoe Company, and Schmidt’s South Side Shoe Store was the local dealer for those shoes. Peters Shoes made custom footwear for Wadlow in exchange for his touring as a goodwill ambassador for the company.(Wadlow wore a size 37AA!)
Wadlow was born February 22, 1918, and grew up in Alton, Illinois. Due to an overactive pituitary gland, he was 5 feet 6 inches by the time he was five. At nine, he was 6 feet 2 inches. By 16 and still in high school, he was 7 feet 10 inches—taller than any of the tall men playing professional basketball today.
He was active in Boy Scouts and in his local Methodist church. He was a DeMolay and became a Freemason in 1939. He attended Shurtleff College in Alton.
His extraordinary height destined him to a life of public appearances, not as a sideshow attraction in carnivals, but for shoe companies. He toured throughout the United States mostly for the International Shoe Company headquartered at St. Louis. When he was eighteen, he appeared at the 1936 Missouri State Fair; by that time, he was 8 feet 4½ inches.
Above all (no pun intended) Wadlow had a gentle nature and was kind to everyone, despite his unusual appearance and difficulty of getting around. He always appeared in normal street clothes and was friendly and courteous with the public, regardless of the gawking and staring.
His father was his escort and manager. After all, he was just a teenager when he entered a life of public appearances. He was only 21 when he visited Jefferson City. Several persons in Jefferson City today distinctly remember his visit on Dunklin Street in 1939.
On June 27, 1940, just eighteen days before his death, doctors at Washington University in St. Louis measured him at 8 feet 11.1 inches. He weighed 490 pounds. He may have grown further before his death.
In July 1940 he experienced a blister and infection from a faulty ankle brace while appearing in Michigan. His condition worsened, and he died on July 15, 1940, at age 22. He was buried in Alton, Illinois. Today, a life-size statue there commemorates the world’s tallest man, certified by the Guinness Book of Records.
The Alton Museum of History and Art includes a special exhibit on Robert Wadlow, Alton’s “Gentle Giant.”
In keeping with the pleasant and unassuming nature of Mr. Wadlow, the exhibit is tastefully done with knowledgeable curators.
Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.
Jefferson City 1939 photo provided by Al Case. Other photos by Susan Ferber.