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Heavy

By the time he died at 32 in 1958, Robert Earl Hughes of tiny Fishhook, Illinois, weighed more than 1,000 pounds, earning a place in The Guinness Book of World Records as the largest man on earth. Except for his neighbors and family, few people knew much about his life until recently, when an astonishing photograph sent the author in search of Hughes’s real story: Raised in a sharecropper’s cabin, trapped in­side half a ton of flesh, this literate, companionable young man had dreamed of seeing the world. Aside from some carnival tours and one disastrous trip to New York, he never lived his dream. But in his short life, he found something else.

Robert Earl Hughes World's Fattest Man

A few months ago, this magazine published photographs from the portfolio of Robert Natkin, a local photographer who worked in the 1940s and 1950s. Natkin trained his lens mostly on hardened city people and landscapes, and his work resonated with the black-and-white urgency of an artist who believed he was shooting stories, not subjects. My job was to write a short essay to accompany his work. Most of the photos were slice-of-life Chicago: poor folk; bathing beauties; a jailbird; factory workers. One photo, however, seemed misplaced, as if it had wandered from a different collection and had settled into Natkin’s book for the night. It showed a rail-thin young farmer playing checkers with a very heavy man. I recognized the large man immediately. He was Robert Earl Hughes, and I knew him from The Guinness Book of World Records. I remembered his weight—1,041 pounds—and another odd detail that had lingered in my memory since childhood: Hughes had been buried in a piano case.

There is much to behold in the photo—piled rolls of flesh, a five-foot-wide chair, tent-size overalls, brotherhood. I did not think to write about any of that. I stared at the picture for much of the day, and when I considered how to describe such a scene, one thought kept returning. I knew the heavy man was lonely.

My dad was fat. At the time I was born, he stood 5 feet 11 and weighed 280 pounds. Like many little boys, I worshiped my father. He was a traveling salesman, and my first memory of him is from a business trip we took together when I was four. We had stopped outside a steak house for dinner, and as his business partner, he allowed me to help close the car trunk. I slammed my thumb in the trunk lid and it began to swell. My dad took me inside the restaurant, using his stomach to push past the long line of waiting customers until we reached the bar, where he ordered a glass of Coke in which I could soak my finger. When the ice melted, he ordered another Coke. At four, the world is a rush of ominous faces, fantastic noises, and dangerous happenings. At four, my father’s size struck me as the perfect protection against a place so large as the world.

I took many more road trips with my dad (my job was to read the maps, watch the gas, and tell my share of stories). Out across America, I noticed that people treated him differently; they were nervous around him, anxious to get away from him, and I remember thinking as the years and trips passed that a person could get lonely being fat in America, that my father looked lonely in America. When customers joked about his weight, I had to will myself not to blubber, even though I was studying karate magazines and playing Little League baseball and becoming a pretty tough young guy. In hotel restaurants, when my dad thought I was still in the bathroom, I peeked around corners to watch him slathering dinner rolls with whipped butter, even though he told me he never used butter, it was too fattening. I remember that he didn’t look lonely when he ate those buttered rolls.

I began to look into the life of Robert Earl Hughes. I checked libraries, the Internet, bookstores, magazines. Though his picture in the Guinness Book was familiar to millions worldwide, little was known of him, save for his hometown (Fishhook, Illinois) and the year he had died (1958). I started digging. The skinny man playing checkers in the photo turned out to be Robert Earl’s brother, who was alive and living on a small Missouri farm. I found his telephone number. Yes, the brother told me, if I’d like to drive some 300 miles, I could ask about Robert Earl—might even be a few other folks around who remembered him. I hadn’t been on a road trip since my father died of a heart attack in 1995, but I collected my maps and checked my gas, and set out to find Robert Earl Hughes.

Fishhook, Illinois, is too tiny even for some mapmakers. Located about 300 miles southwest of Chicago near the state’s westernmost tip, the town claims the same general store, two churches, and one-room schoolhouse it did in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Hughes family called it home. Four of Fishhook’s 29 current re­s­­idents have agreed to meet me at the general store, where they remember the Hughes family trading eggs and cream, socializing, and bringing their eldest son by horse-drawn wagon to be weighed on the platform scale. First, however, they recommend that I stop at the Pike County Historical Society in nearby Pitts­field to view a collection of local newspaper clips.

The historical society opens mostly by appointment in winter, and it is not heated. One board member, a retired high school history teacher, says that if I can stand the cold (most folks can’t) and want to read the miles of yellowed news clippings spread across ancient wooden tables, I may avail myself of the life of Robert Earl Hughes.

Three hours later and steeped in the outline of Hughes’s life, I arrive at the Fishhook general store. The four residents, including the widow of the long-time owner, have cleared a table in the back, where crinkle-cut snapshots of Robert Earl sit piled in a corner for my consideration. The store, they regret, is smaller than it was in its glory days in the 1940s and 1950s, when the town depended on it for meat, milk, shoes, feed, britches, and hammers; when the upstairs room hosted wedding receptions and lodge meetings; and when children paid 12 cents each to sit on benches and watch Gene Autry movies. For two hours, these people reach back into their lives to remember their friend Robert Earl, and by the time I leave for my hotel, the giant man from the Guinness Book has stepped from the gallery of freaks and oddities frozen with him on those pages, and ambled forward as a living, breathing human being.

Georgia Hughes of Lewis County, Missouri, was 20 when she gave birth to her first son, nine-pound Robert Earl, in 1926. At the time, Lewis County was known to be the proud home of Miss Ella Ewing, and while not as celebrated as Mark Twain of nearby Hannibal, Miss Ewing owned her own claim to fame—at eight feet four, she was believed to be the tallest woman who had ever lived.

Not long after Robert Earl was born, Georgia Hughes and her 48-year-old husband, Abe, crossed the Mississippi and moved to a farm near Fishhook—they were sharecroppers, and moved frequently to promising farms. The Illinois property, severed from town by a rough-running creek, was virtually inaccessible by automobile, but that wouldn’t matter much—the family was poor, and could afford neither electricity nor running water, let alone a car. When Robert Earl was a few months old, he began to cough—a bit at first, then full-out, violently, for weeks. Doctors diagnosed a case of whooping cough, typically a monthlong hell of unrelenting hacking trademarked by a desperate “whoop” sound on the intake. Today, children are vaccinated against whooping cough, but on the farm in 1926, young Robert Earl could only cough and wait and cough some more.

Eventually, Robert Earl’s cough faded, and life returned to normal. Over the next couple of years, Georgia gave birth to two more boys, Guy and Donald, and while the family remained poor, life on the Hughes farm tasted sweet for its simplicity. As Robert Earl made his way through infancy, his mother noticed that he grew faster than many children, maybe faster than any child should. By the time he reached two, Robert Earl was round enough to cause his father to fetch a doctor, who theorized that the boy’s violent coughs had damaged his pituitary gland, a hormone center at the base of the brain that effects growth. Medical science, the doctor confessed, was helpless to correct it. No one could say how big the boy might grow.

By the time Robert Earl entered the first grade at age seven, he stood a few inches taller than his classmates, but weighed at least 225 pounds, about the same as his teacher, a grown man. Abe took to walking his sons to their one-room school, careful not to allow Robert Earl to become stuck in the muddy paths that led from farm to town. Today, a kid so desperately heavy would be brutalized by classmates, but to the eyes of the kids of Fishhook, who had known and seen and played with Robert Earl every day of their lives, he did not appear different, just bigger. “He was a little heavy, sure, but that never worried us,” recalls Marian Wagner, a childhood friend. “We never mentioned it. Who would think of mistreating him? He was too kind. He was always upbeat and laughing and having fun with everyone, so why would someone think of hurting him?” When the roly-poly boy could no longer run or jump with his peers, they invented new games that suited or even featured him, and if the object at recess was to “get Earl down,” why, you’d better believe that Robert Earl was laughing hardest of all while he whirled in circles to bat away his mates. It never occurred to Fishhook children, separated from the faster world by income, geography, and opportunity, to tease a boy who was so much like them.

Most Saturdays, the Hughes family would travel to the general store, where they would trade their farm goods for life’s essentials. When he was ten, Robert Earl stepped for the first time on the store’s platform scale, where the owner, Gerald Kurfman, added counterweights, then more counterweights, before announcing a reading of 378 pounds. Word spread to neighboring counties about the heavy lad in Fishhook. A doctor who came to examine Robert Earl told his parents that the boy would likely die by 15—that no heart could stand such stress. After that, Robert Earl avoided doctors whenever possible; he thought they were interested only in experimenting on him. While the Hughes family continued to visit the store, no one remembers Georgia watching Robert Earl’s calories or scolding him for coveting marshmallows or treating him differently in any way than she treated his brothers.

At school, Robert Earl leapfrogged his peers in reading and writing, and startled teachers with a memory that bordered on eerie. “If he read something or met someone, he would remember it forever,” says Harry Manley, 77, who worked for a couple of years in the general store. “He only needed one time.” Robert Earl sat in a specially constructed chair reinforced with wires. Every month that chair got tighter and tighter, and every month the boy seemed to get smarter and smarter, to know more about the world and its odd places with strange names. By 12, Kurfman had weighed him at 500 pounds, and Robert Earl had taken to carrying a gallon of milk and two loaves of bread to school every day for lunch. In the fifth grade, while walking home from school, Robert Earl fell into a muddy ditch and had to be pulled out with a tractor and belts by the town’s men. “It scared us all so terribly,” recalls Gladys Still, a childhood friend who watched the rescue. Though the boy never spoke of dying, kids knew he wasn’t supposed to live long, and they remember that day as the first time they were scared for the life of their friend.

By age 14, Robert Earl weighed nearly 550 pounds and could not move well. Once the epicenter of recess fun, he now watched from a sideline bench reinforced by two-by-fours as his classmates frolicked. His school chair no longer held him. Muddy roads had become quicksand to his potbellied legs. Since his family owned no vehicle with which to drive him to school, Robert Earl quit at the end of seventh grade to help his mother, who had become his best friend, with chores around the house.

In the United States, very young children rate drawings of fat children more negatively than they do drawings of children with disabilities.

Nursery schoolers asked to view drawings of children who are in wheelchairs, on crutches, without limbs, disfigured, or obese say that they like the amputee and obese children least.

American children prefer thin rag dolls to fat rag dolls; even fat children prefer thin dolls.

Fat children in the United States are less likely than others to receive best-friend ratings from their classmates.

By second grade, American children use these words to describe the silhouette of a fat child: dirty; lazy; sloppy; ugly; and stupid.

Fat students are less likely to attend college despite high standardized test scores.

Fat students are more likely to be refused letters of recommendation from faculty.

College students rate fat people last as potential marriage partners, behind embezzlers, cocaine users, shoplifters, and blind people.

Knowledge thrilled Robert Earl, but now, at 15 and nearing 600 pounds, he was unable to attend school or stray from the farm. Simple tasks had become cumbersome: to put on shoes, he needed to sit on the edge of his six-legged bed, then pull one of his legs up and onto the side of the bed, where he would work his shoe over his size ten foot; Guy bathed Robert Earl daily with sponges, because the family had no running water and Robert Earl could not reach many parts of his body.

Robert Earl adored his mother, and they awoke early—she to help dress him in the freshest-smelling, morning-dried work shirt and overalls, he to help her wash dishes, peel fruit, and pitch hay. Those who knew him insist he ate as much as a strapping grown man, but no more. His thirst, on the other hand, was titanic, and his brothers found themselves constantly breaking from chores to bring water to Robert Earl. As his weight continued to constrict the physical boundaries of his universe, Robert Earl began to read voraciously—National Geographic, Life, Westerns, mysteries, travelogues—until he had imported vast chunks of the world onto the real estate of his imagination. At the general store on Saturdays, he would make his way to the special reinforced chair Mr. Kurfman had built and painted a fine shade of green, and oh, could that boy talk about anything! Customers brought Robert Earl the latest magazines and back issues. “Whatever reading material people had, they’d bring and leave for Robert Earl,” says Mary Emma Kurfman, whose husband owned the store. “He appreciated it so much, and he read everything.” People bought him marshmallows and cookies, too, not because fat boys needed sweets, but because they knew his family couldn’t afford the extras, and boys—especially such pleasant boys—shouldn’t go without extras forever.

Months passed and Robert Earl continued to expand. By 16, he stood five feet nine and weighed 600 pounds. To the folks in Fishhook, Robert Earl’s weight had become as natural an evolution as the beard now sprouting from his brother Guy’s face. Those outside the community were less reserved in their reaction to word of the nearby fat boy. Residents of surrounding counties began to dip their toes inside the general store—“Might you know where the Hughes lad lives?”—and Kurfman would draw them a detailed map, complete with creek. Those people made their way and knocked on the door, and Robert Earl was always happy to see them, always smiled for those cameras he dreamed of owning, always talked about whatever place his guests were going next or current event that caused them worry. When a local newspaperman wrote of visiting the Hughes farm, he described Robert Earl as a “wonderful conversationalist” and remarked on the boy’s “pleasant personality and sense of humor.” The daily paper was so impressed it sent Robert Earl a free subscription, which he devoured every morning.

During trips to the general store, Robert Earl rode in the back of the family’s horse-drawn wagon, holding its wooden sides with marbled arms that rippled retorts to bumps in the town’s rutted roads. Visitors continued to flock to Fishhook as word spread about the fat boy who never frowned, and some suggested that he “show” at the various festivals that become the focal point of autumn country life. In 1946, at age 20, Robert Earl and his family made a trip to the Baylis Fall Festival, where he pushed the scale past 700 pounds. He attracted a crush of observers, sold 160 photos of himself, then took orders for more. By day’s end, he had grossed $240.03, and earned the attention of fast talkers with dollars in their eyes. No, Georgia told the hucksters and anglers, Robert Earl will not be made a regular carnival attraction, carted from town to town to be displayed before the public. The money would have been manna to the Hughes family, but Georgia could not bear the idea of her son as spectacle; she would never allow people to stare.

One Saturday evening in 1947, while in his backyard, a neighbor heard a faint cry from Robert Earl. The neighbor dashed to his truck and drove to the Hughes farm, where Georgia lay on the floor, her mop and bucket nearby. A doctor was summoned. Robert Earl sat despondent that he could do no more to help his mother than yell into the country air—he couldn’t run to help her.

Early the next morning, Georgia died from a stroke. Now 21 years old and 754 pounds, Robert Earl was without his best friend. And the world has a way of changing when you lose your mother and your best friend in the same day.

The loss of a parent awakens impulses. Shortly after Georgia died, Robert Earl wrote a letter to Heart’s Desire, a radio program in Hollywood. “I’ve been very large all my life, not able to work. I’m said to be the world’s largest man. I’m 21 years old and weigh 754 pounds. I am not able to get around. My Heart’s Desire is for a radio and a camera, so if I do get to go anywhere I can take pictures. . . . I’m too large to work. My belt is 110 inches around, and if you’ll send me these things, I’ll never forget you.” The show sent him the camera and radio. They likely never considered the most important line in the letter: “. . . if I do get to go anywhere.”

Offers from area fairs and festivals, at $50 to $100 per appearance, continued to roll in. With his father busy on the farm, his family poor, and a wanderlust fed by a constant influx of books and magazines, Robert Earl began to display himself at these events, attracting great crowds who stood behind fences and paid 25 cents for his autographed picture. Newspapers covered his appearances, and soon enough Hollywood came calling for the World’s Largest Man from Illinois. Newsreel crews smooth-talked their way in Fishhook, posing three starlets together in a pair of Robert Earl’s overalls, walking a neighbor around Robert Earl’s belly with a tape measure, and shaking their heads at the enduring pleasantness of a man whose misery they could only imagine. The films played worldwide, and brought thousands of letters to downstate Illinois newspapers. A St. Louis heart specialist paid Robert Earl a tidy sum for the privilege of examining him, then proclaimed that the young man possessed the heart of an 1,100-pound steer. The attention only bolstered Robert Earl’s drawing power, and he accepted offers to appear at auto parts stores, clothing shops, even movie theatres, though he had never been able to fit in the chairs they kept in those dark, wonderful palaces he had only heard about.

Two years after Georgia died, Guy Hughes married, and this proved to be a godsend to Robert Earl, who at 23 was now pushing the scales in excess of 800 pounds. Guy’s new wife, Lillian, took over where Robert Earl’s mother had left off, sewing his shirts (each of which required a piece of fabric 9 feet wide and 18 feet long), cooking his meals, and painting a feminine presence in what had become a very masculine household. With Guy away from home one day, Robert Earl and Lillian began to muse aloud about how wonderful it might be to visit Robert Earl’s half-sister Dora. Could Lillian drive a tractor? She could try. Could Robert Earl climb aboard? He could try. Lillian pulled him the three miles for the surprise visit. It had taken him nearly half an hour to pull himself up. The adventure, so spontaneous and splendid, was memorialized with a snapshot of a smiling Robert Earl behind his house just before leaving.

Others also showed kindness to Rob­ert Earl. A man who glimpsed him at a fair committed the large man’s frame to memory, then went home and built a dignified, custom reinforced chair, which Robert Earl would use for the rest of his life. Daisy Sheckelsworth, a woman who had met Robert Earl and admired his poise and intellect at that first Baylis festival, became a sort of benefactor to the young man, supplying him with pencils, paper, and stamps for his burgeoning pen pal hobby, and securing a supply of complimentary custom-made overalls from a clothing factory in Iowa. “Aunt Daisy,” as she became known to the Hughes family, would remain a lifelong friend.

For seven years, Robert Earl continued to travel to local fairs in the back of a pickup truck, earning respectable appearance fees and selling thousands of autographed photos. The real money, however, lay in traveling carnivals, the shows that toured the country to huge crowds over several days. Offers poured in; circus fat men rarely exceeded 500 pounds, and wore loose-fitting tents to suggest bulk that wasn’t there. The idea of a half-tonner who might pose shirtless was irresistible to promoters. In 1954, at age 28 and weighing 946 pounds, Robert Earl signed with Texas-based W. A. Schafer sideshows. Lillian’s father and brother would accompany him while Guy worked the farm. Before long, the family bought a traveling carnival trailer that had once belonged to performing Siamese twins—Robert Earl would sleep, eat, and live in the front end of the trailer, while the rear would open on the side to display him, seated and most of the time shirtless, during shows. Robert Earl Hughes, who had never seen a movie and could walk only 20 feet before resting, was about to discover America.

I never mentioned my father’s weight to him. His customers did; he even joked about it with them. But our relationship was different; we were pals, and I pretended not to notice his stomach. Looking back, it’s clear he allowed me to pretend.

In 1995, a doctor told my dad that he didn’t have long to live, that his bad heart and diabetes and weight were about to kill him. I told him that doctors didn’t know everything and asked him to take a road trip with me, that I wanted to tape-record all his best stories, the ones about buying a Mexican copper mine and throwing a killer knuckleball. I also decided that it was time to ask him about being fat, about how his weight had affected his life, if he had been hurt by people who treated him differently, if he was OK.

I picked up my dad on a Saturday morning and we set out for Wisconsin. A half-hour into the trip, I reached for the tape recorder and asked if he was ready to tell his greatest stories. He said that he was not, that the drive and the conversation were so nice we ought not interrupt it, let’s just go. We drove into Wisconsin and onto the Kettle Moraine roads I’d discovered while in college. Six hours later, I dropped him off. We had talked about life and the world and the greatness of Steve Carlton’s slider. We’d remembered funny characters. We had a Chinese buffet lunch. We never discussed his weight, and I never got around to asking if he was OK. He died a few months later in his kitchen, by himself. I called his doctor to ask if she thought he had suffered. She said she was sure that he had not.

Texas was glorious. With the Schafer show, Robert Earl hit Texarkana, Tyler, even Dallas, where he saw his first movie at a drive-in while a guest in the armored car once owned by gangster Mickey Cohen. It was probably during this time, in 1954 at age 28, that Robert Earl grew past 1,000 pounds. By now, he was making more money than anyone in his family ever had, though he was by no means rich. Expenses, insurance, and the promoter ate into the hundreds of 25-cent admissions (ten cents for kids) and photo fees he collected at every stop. During show times, Robert Earl chatted happily with onlookers: I do eat a lot, but not much more than many hearty fellows; My beds have collapsed, but the one I sleep on now is reinforced; I do dress myself, but I cannot tie my shoes; I suppose I’m fat because that’s the way God wanted me. The crowds observed Robert Earl from behind a wooden partition—not because he was afraid of people or they of him, but because teenagers and drunks, refusing to believe he was real, had burned his arms too many times with cigarettes.

Robert Earl spent the next two summers touring the South, East, and Midwest (though he never “showed” in Chicago). After the 1956 season, he and Guy’s family moved to a farm in Missouri, where the land was cheaper and Guy had high hopes for new crops. In 1956 and now weighing 1,041 pounds, Robert Earl was approached by a city slicker who offered him the deal of a lifetime: Go to New York to appear on the world’s biggest television shows—Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Arthur Godfrey, Steve Allen. Pay would be $40,000 plus airfare and expenses—Rockefeller money. Robert Earl jumped at the chance.

No passenger airline, of course, could accommodate Robert Earl. The Civil Aeronautics Board studied the case and granted a special permission to allow Robert Earl to travel aboard the freight carrier Slick Airways. Robert Earl was taken to O’Hare by ambulance, where he was lifted by hydraulic hoist onto a specially made bed, then moved into a heated and pressurized section of the airplane. Newspapers, as they did often in stories about Robert Earl, treated him with a mixture of ridicule and humor. “Now, Will He Fit on TV Screen?” asked the headline in a Sun-Times story that also referred to the “Hughes acreage” and dubbed him the “self-styled emperor of avoirdupois.” Another article pondered what Robert Earl’s fare would be if he were billed as regular freight.

Upon his arrival in New York, Robert Earl was whisked to a suite in the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn, where tailors from the He-Man Shops scurried to measure him for the world’s biggest Santa Claus suit—the role he was to play on television. The costume arrived soon after, and photographers snapped hundreds of photos of the colossal Santa from Illinois. Then, nothing. No television, no phone calls, no paycheck. The promoter apparently got what he wanted—the photographs—and then abandoned his guest. Before long, Robert Earl was broke and without a place to stay or a ticket home. He had no contract on which to stake a claim—in Fishhook, a handshake was a man’s bond. The Salvation Army stepped in and paid his way back. Arriving in St. Louis, he told reporters, “No more wild goose chases for me.” Then he climbed into the ambulance his brother had hired for the trip back to the farm, still dressed in the giant Santa Claus suit to protect himself from the winter chill.

In the 1950s, doctors could do little more than recommend dieting for the severely obese. Today, clinics throughout the world specialize in advanced treatments for severe obesity.

“I’ve treated many in the 600-pound range very successfully with surgery,” says Robert Kushner, medical director of the  Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The surgery Dr. Kushner favors is not the massive liposuction one might expect, but rather the stomach stapling made famous by Carnie Wilson and Roseanne. The stapling reduces the size of the stomach to that of a child. Even today, however, Robert Earl would present singular problems.

“At 1,000 pounds, he would be much too high a risk for surgery,” says Kushner, whose heaviest patient weighed 780 pounds. “I’d be afraid Mr. Hughes wouldn’t get off the ventilator and would die postoperatively. So he first would have to go on a very strict diet in order to allow him to take deeper breaths and reduce the load on his heart. Perhaps then, at 700 pounds, stapling would be appropriate.”

Dr. Kushner says that the early explanation for Robert Earl’s size—a glandular disorder brought on by whooping cough—is perfectly plausible. Reports that he ate only slightly more than average hearty eaters are less so. “A lot of eating by the severely obese is done when no one is around; it’s secretive,” the doctor says. “Many of my patients don’t perceive that they’re eating a lot of food, but even in cases of glandular disorders like Mr. Hughes, the calories must come from somewhere. Still, it is believable that he did not have to eat massive amounts in order to grow that large.”

In the United States, 61 percent of adults are overweight. Between 3 percent and 5 percent of the American population—or about 11 million people—are severely obese (more than 100 pounds overweight). In treating his patients, Dr. Kushner has come to glimpse a side of human behavior few of us might care to know. They routinely tell him about children yelling, “Look at that fat pig!” They tell him about nailing three job interviews by phone, only to interview in person with a manager who cannot even make eye contact before dismissing them. They tell him about stepping aboard an airplane and watching everyone pray that they sit somewhere else. They tell him about strangers removing items from their grocery carts and saying, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“When I finished my medical training, it became clear that these were people who had more than a desperate need for treatment,” Dr. Kushner says. “They needed a little understanding, too.”

Robert Earl’s New York experience did little to  derail him from the carnival circuit. In 1957, now traveling with Guy and Lillian, Robert Earl honored bookings throughout the country. Walking, even with his massive cane, had become nearly impossible for the 31-year-old, who almost certainly weighed in excess of the 1,041-pound figure that had been painted on his trailer the year before—a rare example of a screaming carnival boast that understated the facts. In September, word reached the carnival that Abe Hughes, Robert Earl’s father, had died at age 79. Guy and Lillian returned to Illinois for the funeral, but Robert Earl stayed on, believing it his duty to honor his commitments. At season’s end, he returned to Guy’s farm, unable to walk more than a few feet without the assistance of family, who would follow closely, lugging the giant chair the stranger had designed for him years before.

Robert Earl spent this off-season, as he had several others, answering hundreds of pieces of mail from pen pals and friends he’d met on tour, and sewing quilt squares for his nieces, whom he adored. (While Robert Earl’s body was enormous, his hands and size ten feet were of normal size and functioned perfectly.) At age 31, he had already outlived the doctor’s prediction by more than double.

In 1958, Robert Earl joined the Gooding Amusement Company for a Midwest tour. Near South Bend, he complained to Lillian about a skin rash and fatigue. When Lillian suggested that he take a nap, Robert Earl replied that he was afraid that if he went to sleep, he would never wake up. Lillian had heard enough. She and Guy drove Robert Earl in the “World’s Largest Man!” trailer to a parking lot in Bremen, Indiana, where they summoned medical help. Doctors connected three blood pressure cuffs to fit Robert Earl’s arm. Diagnosing measles, the doctors administered an injection, most likely to stimulate his kidneys. Within hours, Robert Earl’s fingernails turned blue and he slipped into a coma. The doctor ordered Robert Earl to the Bremen hospital.

There, hospital staff realized he could not be wedged into a room. Oxygen was wheeled to the trailer, where Guy and Lillian kept a vigil, mopping his brow and holding his hand. When Lillian began to wash Robert Earl’s feet, Guy looked at his apparently comatose brother and worried aloud that Robert Earl did not even know who was cleaning him. Robert Earl moved a bit and said, “Lillian is washing my feet.” He never spoke again. Two days later, Robert Earl was dead of congestive heart failure. He was 32.

Doctors immediately requested permission to perform an autopsy. Guy refused; why hurt him any more? Still inside the carnival trailer, Robert Earl’s body was driven to a local funeral home, where embalmers climbed in and began their work. Embalming equipment was hooked to a heavy-duty drainage system at a nearby garage. Dozens of gallons of embalming fluid were pumped into the body. Eight hours later, the job was finished. The funeral home didn’t charge Guy a dime extra. Today, when Duwaine Elliott thinks about embalming Robert Earl, he remembers little of the equipment or the long day inside the trailer. Instead, he sees Robert Earl’s face. “He had such a youthful face,” Elliott says. “I’ll always remember his young face.”

Lillian’s brother drove Robert Earl back to the Fishhook area for the funeral, but the family had to wait a few days for Iowa casket makers to finish building the custom steel-reinforced coffin. (Robert Earl was not buried in a piano case, as the Guinness Book reported for decades.) About 2,000 people attended the open-casket funeral, and many of them joked and frolicked and hunted for souvenirs. State police accompanied the procession to a tiny cemetery in Benville, Illinois, where a crane lowered Robert Earl into a massive grave dug next to those of his parents. His tombstone, paid for by local residents, reads, “robert earl hughes / june 4, 1926–july 10, 1958 / world’s heaviest man / weight 1,041 pounds.”

I still have one more appointment before returning to Chicago. Guy and Lillian Hughes are expecting me at their home in tiny Emden, Missouri, about 75 miles west of Fishhook. Emden is the last place Robert Earl Hughes lived. Guy told me on the phone to look carefully for his house because it was small. “We were poor back in Robert’s day, and we’re still poor,” he said.

I knock at the back door of the Hughes house, where the driveway delivers visitors into a phalanx of yapping dogs. A tall, thin man motions me inside a small patio. There, against the frame of the house, next to a plastic garbage can and an old Indian blanket, rests what looks like a park bench. “That’s Robert’s chair,” the man says. “I’m Guy Hughes. This is my wife, Lillian.”

On the kitchen table are photo books that Guy, 73, and Lillian, 68, have pulled out for my inspection. “There’s the three of us boys with our teacher; here’s Robert at a clothing store appearance with Aunt Jemima; that’s Robert at the carnival.” On another table sits Robert Earl’s own scrapbook, crammed full of black-and-white snapshots of visitors, pen pals, a country music band from Jacksonville, Illinois, even 600-pound Ed Bauer of Campbellsport, Wisconsin, “The Big­gest Man in the Liquor Business.”

There are also photographs of several beautiful young women who had written him. “Love Janet.” “As ever, Lula Mary.” “Robert didn’t have any girlfriends,” Guy says. “A newspaper once asked him about marrying. He said, ‘A fella’s got to get a chance first.’ He never did say if he was lonely for a girl.”

For three hours, Guy and Lillian talk about Robert Earl, about his life and times and all those stories. But it is in the crevices of their memories, where details drop almost accidentally, that their recollections resonate. Robert Earl had hazel eyes, “something you never see in the pictures of him.” He was a handsome fella; “you just had to know how to look.” He used a little box camera, but he “made it take better pictures than the fancy ones these days.” Robert Earl’s parents sometimes called him Bob. They never forced him to diet because “they were nice to him about his weight.” When people talked to him at carnivals, they didn’t want to leave, not because he was fat, but because “there was something in him that made people like him.” Robert Earl used the word “heavy” to describe himself, not “fat.” If he was afraid of dying, he never let on to anyone. He believed in God.

I ask Guy if he thinks of Robert Earl when he sees a very heavy person today.

“It’s funny,” Guy says. “These days, when I see someone so heavy, I think, That’s a happy person.”

I leave my hotel early the next morning. Near Bloomington on Route 55, I notice my left hand resting atop the steering wheel, pinky pointing up and left toward the horizon—my dad’s driving grip. I think about him leaning way back in those Lincoln Continentals—“the one car that fits me right”—and about all the trips he took by himself. As the rest stops and service stations fly by, I think my dad was OK on those trips—and it’s OK by me that we never got to talking about him being fat.

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