Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Friday, November 06, 2015

ONCE UPON AN ANECDOTE: AN AMERICAN IDOL




Everyone looked up to Bobby Pershing.  No matter where he was, at home or around the country, Bobby made a lasting impression on every one he met.  At the end of his all too short life, Bobby had gained world wide fame, which has never waned even until today, some seventy five years after his death.


Bobby was born on George Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1918 in Alton, Illinois.  Alton, a small city on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and due north of St. Louis, Missouri, is famous for being the site of the last  Lincoln - Douglas debate and the birthplace of jazz great Miles Davis.

Bobby, who was named for World War I hero General Blackjack Pershing,  became somewhat of a celebrity when he joined the Ringling Brothers Circus  after high school.   A big-footed boy, his shoes were paid for by the shoe’s makers to promote their product.  And to help sell those shoes, Bobby traveled scores of thousands of miles across the country.

Bobby, who had just turned 22 years old, was traveling up Highway 441 in his specially designed car toward the mountains of North, Georgia.   Researcher Jeff Payne discovered that Bobby and his daddy were seen in Clayton, Georgia on March 5, 1940  and in Blue Ridge, Georgia on March 6 on his way to the mountains of North Carolina.

It was just after noon on Leap Day, 1940  when Bobby and his daddy stopped into a Dublin, Georgia restaurant, most likely Jernigan’s Café on the busy southwest corner of West Jackson Street and South Lawrence Street in a building now occupied by the Bank of Dudley.  Waitresses and lunchtime diners were astonished.   Some of them had seen his picture in the newspaper, but his presence caused a rousing stir inside the place and outside the door as well.  They stared as Bobby, a big boy for his age, as he ate and kept on eating. Some folks said he ate 8000 calories a day, four times the amount a dieting man should eat today.

After downing his meal, Bobby stepped outside through the front door to have his picture taken. Bobby had to bend down, way, way down, to exit the diner It was very unusual in those days for a reporter of the Courier Herald to take a photo of a  live event.  This photo was an exception to that rule.

Bobby posed with his father, a man of average height, even with his white Panama hat on his head.  Bobby’s head, covered by a dark colored Fedora, touched the awning above the door.  You see, Bobby was tall for his age or for any age.

Bobby Pershing, better known as Robert Pershing Wadlow was taller than any person on the Earth then and since.  Billed as the tallest person in the world by the Guiness Book of World Records and every other record keeping organization, Robert suffered from hyperplasia of his pituitary gland, which results in an abnormally high level of human growth hormone

Robert, the eldest of the five children of Harold and Addie Johnson Wadlow, weighed 8 pounds and six ounces and was 20 inches tall at birth.    On his first birthday, he stood three and one half feet tall.  While he was in kindergarten, Robert was the height of an average man of the day - about five and a half feet tall.  At ten, Robert was measured at 6 feet 5 inches tall and topped the scales at 210 pounds.

Robert’s parents simply wanted him to have a normal life by letting him do what he wanted to do; collect stamps, take pictures and work toward becoming a lawyer.

At thirteen, Robert was designated as the world’s tallest Boy Scout, at seven feet four inches, weighing 301 pounds and sporting a size 25 shoe.  I wonder how tall the number two  though five scouts were.   Robert topped 8 feet before his 16th birthday.  On high school graduation day, he was 8 feet, 3 inches tall.   Unlike most boys, Robert didn’t stop growing - averaging 1 or 2 inches per year after he grew to 8 feet tall.  Robert wanted to become a lawyer more than anything else.  Certainly no juror would ever take their eyes off of him as he lumbered before the bar.  By 1939, Robert was officially designated as “the tallest man in the world.”


An 8-foot-tall man has to weigh a lot as well.  Robert gained 20 pounds a year or so, topping the scales at 492 pounds or nearly a quarter of a ton on his 21st birthday.   With his enormous size came enormous strength, which did not leave him until his body began to suffer as his skeletal structure stretched and stretched.   Forced to walk clumsily and gingerly with leg braces, Robert’s health began to go down hill in a hurry.

Robert’s body just kept on growing.   And, there was nothing any doctor or scientist could do about it.  When he was last measured on June 27, 1940, Robert was officially measured at just nine-tenths of an inch short of nine feet.  And, he was wearing a size 37AA shoe and still growing.

A week later on the 4th of July while he was appearing at the National Forest Festival in Manistee. Michigan.  Robert’s leg brace began to irritate his leg causing a serious blister.  A deadley infection ensued.  Doctors tried all that they could.  After an initially successful surgery and blood transfusion, Robert’s condition worsened.

Robert died in his sleep on July 15, 1940, just four and one half months after his lunchtime visit to Dublin.    He was buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in Upper Alton, Illinois in a custom made coffin. It took a dozen pallbearers and eight other men to carry his one-half ton casket to his grave in Oakwood Cemetery in his hometown.


Following his death, Robert became the favorite of statue makers.  A life-size statue stands in front of the Museum of History and Art in his hometown.  Many statues can be found in the Guiness Museum and the Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums around the country.

In the last seventy five years, no one in the world would have been able to look down on Robert Wadlow, known to many across the country as “The Gentle Giant”.    Sadly, no one alive in Dublin today remembers that Leap Day back in 1940 when everyone in town looked up to Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in the world and an American idol.

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