Today in 1918 was the birthday of Robert Pershing Wadlow.

Fans of world records will remember him as the tallest man who ever lived.

But he there was more to the man known as the Gentle Giant than his height.

Wadlow was one of five children who grew up together in Alton, Illinois, and when we say he grew up we mean that literally.

He was 6’2 by age 8.

By age 12, doctors explained to the family that Wadlow’s pituitary gland was overactive and that he would grow and grow and grow for the rest of his life.

Today the condition is correctable with surgery and other treatments, but back then the family decided it was too risky.

So Wadlow grew taller and taller; at the end of his life he was 8 feet, 11.1 inches tall.

He went to college hoping to become a lawyer, but getting around campus became a big challenge.

Instead, Wadlow made personal appearances, sometimes on behalf of the company that custom made his size 37AA shoes, sometimes for the circus.

It wasn’t an easy life.

Not only was it hard for someone over 8 feet tall to travel in cars and try to sleep in hotel beds, people didn’t always remember that he was a person, not just an attraction.

Attendees, for example, sometimes smacked his legs to see whether he was actually just walking on stilts.

But Wadlow was a person.

He was an avid reader, he liked to play board games, he was interested in local history, and he enjoyed the Boy Scouts as a kid.

And while he traveled all over the country and met plenty of famous people, he felt most at home in Alton, where people knew and liked him for him, not for his stature.

Wadlow sold autographs to raise money for a local church; they named the space Wadlow Hall.

If you visit Alton today, you can find a full size statue of Robert Wadlow on a local college campus.

The nearby plaque hails Wadlow as a “well-traveled ambassador for our city.”

While his height got people’s attention, it says “he was known for his positive attitude and gentle manner.”

Starting today in Glendale, California, it’s the Twist & Shout Balloon Convention.

They have workshops and competitions for balloon artists – including master classes like “balloon weaving” and “advanced hats.”

They even have a costume contest!

100 facts about Alton’s gentle giant, Robert Wadlow (STL Today)

Twist & Shout Balloon Convention

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Photo by Anthony Auston via Flickr/Creative Commons