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John Carroll, ‘the Giant of South Buffalo,’ will be remembered in Philadelphia museum

The call came out at about 2 a.m. on an October night in 1959.

“You’ve got to go pick up the giant,” the Mercy Hospital switchboard operator told Dr. Joseph A. Prezio, then a young intern who rode along on ambulance calls.

Prezio thought staffers were pulling his leg. And when they insisted that this well-known patient was really tall, Prezio thought, OK, maybe 6 foot 6.

Then the doctor walked into the man’s home in South Buffalo. The first thing Prezio noticed was the elevated toilet.

Then he saw John Carroll, lying in his oversize bed with a broken ankle.

“I had to turn my head and scan him to see how tall he was,” Prezio said. “Right away, I recognized what he was, an acromegalic giant.”

Acromegaly is a disorder caused by excessive production of growth hormone, usually from a pituitary-gland tumor.

“That was my first exposure to John Francis Carroll, the Buffalo Giant,” Prezio said.

John Carroll stood just over 8 feet tall.

Prezio, an endocrinologist and nuclear-medicine specialist, would care for Carroll until the young man died in 1969 at age 37.

“I measured him more than once, from the crown of his head to the heel of his right foot,” recalled Prezio, now retired and living in Troy. “He was just a hair over 8 feet, maybe a quarter of an inch.”

When an engineer estimated Carroll’s true height, taking into account his curved spine, the measurement came to 8 feet, 7.75 inches.

Now 46 years after his death, Carroll will be known and remembered by more than his surviving friends, co-workers and relatives, who often called him “Big Red.”

Thanks to Prezio and Valerie Cronin, the doctor’s nuclear-medicine technologist back then, Carroll will be recognized at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, internationally known for its unusual medical exhibits.

“Are you ready to be disturbingly informed?” the museum asks on its website.

That museum will feature two artifacts that speak to Carroll’s size: his size 16-EEEE right boot and his 72-inch crutches; 6-foot-long crutches might not seem huge, until you realize that crutches extend only to a person’s armpit.

“This man lived a quiet life in Buffalo, and now 50 years later, his story is being recognized,” said Cronin, now a local health care consultant. “He truly was a giant.”

So quiet was that life, and so minor a celebrity was he, that his obituary in The Buffalo Evening News devoted more space to his career as a local parks superintendent than to his size.

Referring to his “Big Red” nickname, the Evening News wrote, “He acquired his nickname because of his height – over 8 feet – and his red hair.”

No other mention was made of his size.

That’s also how he lived his life, recalled Prezio, who knew him for a decade.

“I never heard anybody say anything demeaning or derogatory about him the whole 10 years,” the doctor said. “He was a wonderful, happy person, despite all his handicaps. I think he lived as normal a life as he could have. That was a measure of the man.”

When people saw him for the first time, they seemed in awe, but never horrified, Prezio said. In his South Buffalo neighborhood, no one gawked at the familiar character. People just greeted him as “Big Red” and asked how he was doing.

“That’s the kind of people they were in South Buffalo, wonderful people,” Prezio said. “The atmosphere in South Buffalo was that of a big family, and they treated him like he was one of their own.”

Big Red’s life

Prezio, along with two co-authors, wrote an 11-page article about Carroll for the American Journal of Medicine magazine in December 1961. It is a scholarly, highly technical article about “acromegalic gigantism,” but it also provides glimpses of Carroll’s life.

He weighed 9 pounds 5 ounces at birth, enjoying good health during infancy and childhood. By age 12, he was 5 foot 6, the tallest member of his grammar-school class, but not off the charts.

“At 16 years of age, he was 6 foot 2 inches tall, very muscular, well-coordinated in movement, popular with his classmates and well appreciated on his (Bishop Timon) high school basketball team,” the article states.

Severe calf pain incapacitated him at times, but he remained healthy and strong. So strong that he could lift a car with both hands.

Many of the changes in Carroll’s body started occurring between ages 12 and 16, Prezio explained in a phone interview.

The tumor in his pituitary gland led to the production of too much growth hormone, causing his bones to stretch.

“His pictures at age 12 showed a normal boy,” Prezio recalled.

By age 16, his photos showed signs of acromegaly.

“That’s why he was a giant. He got the problem before his bones closed.”

Carroll continued to grow quickly, reaching 7 foot tall by age 20 and 7-foot-6 by age 22.

During that time, he noticed a gradual loss of muscle tone and strength, especially in his legs, along with a deformity of his spine.

As an adult, he used crutches, because of deformities in his left leg, and although he could drive, he had to remove the front seat of his car and drive from the rear.

“He is extremely well-liked by all who meet him, and he has made an excellent adjustment to life,” the article states. “At one time, he ran for alderman in his political district, losing by only a few votes, while running his entire campaign from a hospital bed.”

The article also cited Carroll’s keen sense of humor and his “high-normal” intelligence.

Carroll died in August 1969, from kidney failure, after excessive calcium blocked his kidney, the doctor explained.

Carroll was acting superintendent of Isle View Park in the Town of Tonawanda and worked for the county Parks Department for seven years, The Buffalo Evening News obituary noted.

He also served as a Republican committeeman and ran unsuccessfully for county supervisor in 1955 and 1957.

“I always enjoyed seeing him come into the office,” Prezio said. “He never complained about his condition. He was a pleasure to be around. That’s why he was so popular in South Buffalo.”

Prezio also credited the Sisters of Mercy, especially Sister Sheila Marie Walsh and her predecessors, with the treatment they gave him.

“The sisters deserve a lot of credit for giving him warm, loving, wonderful care,” he said.

The tallest man

Any conversation about the tallest men and women is tricky, as explained by the website thetallestman.com, dubbed “the Giant website.”

“People of extreme height have always been exaggerating their true height,” the website states. “In history many giants have claimed to be the tallest man alive, or even the tallest man ever. Some of the circus, sideshow and freakshow giants did not allow themselves to be measured.”

There’s another problem, the way the person is measured, as seen in the two measurements of Carroll’s height, varying from 8 feet to 8 feet 7.75 inches.

The “Giant website” lists Carroll as the third-tallest person, citing both measurements. It lists the tallest as Robert Pershing Wadlow, at 8 feet 11.1 inches. He died in 1940, at age 22.

The website lists about 140 people over 7 foot 6, including former pro basketball players Manute Bol and Shawn Bradley.

Remembering Carroll

Cronin, the former medical technologist who lives in North Tonwanda, remembered how she wound up with John Carroll’s crutches.

One day in the late 1990s, Prezio said to her, “Val, hang onto these. Some day I’m going to want them back.”

About a month ago, after Prezio contacted the Mutter Museum, he called Cronin, asking about the crutches.

“I have them,” she replied. “You gave them to me about 18 years ago.”

She took the crutches to UPS, to send to the museum. The crutches became a quick conversation piece, with people asking where she got them.

One young UPS worker said: “I’d just sell them on eBay.”

But Cronin, who worked in management at both the Catholic Health and Kaleida Health systems, is glad that someone from Western New York with an unusual medical condition will be recognized internationally.

“He should be remembered for the way he handled his challenging medical condition with dignity,” she said.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com