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WALKING TALL : Being Head and Shoulders Above the Rest Is a Big Job, Say Those Who Have Risen to the Challenge

February 12, 1988|MARK LANDSBAUM | Times Staff Writer

We take you now to the home of Orange County's tallest family.

Skeptical?

Mom's the runt. She's 6-foot-1.

Sis answers the door. She's 6-foot-9.

Then there's kid brother. He measures 7 feet, 1 inch. Dad and older brother each come in at 6-foot-9.

Maybe, just maybe, Gary and Karen Waikle's Mission Viejo family is not absolutely, positively the tallest family in Orange County. But the results aren't necessarily final.

"I think I'm still growing," advises the 18-year-old 7-foot-1 Jim Waikle.

Being tall is generally associated with other admirable traits--as in tall, dark and handsome. Big and strong. Someone to look up to. Bigger and better.

But for tall people, especially the very tall and those who became very tall very early, life isn't always a bed of long-stemmed roses.

UC Irvine ombudsman Ron Wilson, who is 6-foot-7 himself, recalls a painful youth.

"You want to be like all the other kids," Wilson says. But for a very tall child, taunts and cruel jokes are counted among growing pains.

Tall is not acne. Tall is not a bad haircut or crooked teeth. Skin can clear up. Hair grows back. Teeth can be straightened.

But every day a tall child wakes up, he's still tall. Some days, he's even taller.

"And if you don't have clothes to fit you, it makes you stand out even more," Wilson says. "I always had hand-me-downs that didn't fit."

There was not always enough money for new clothes for the six children in the Wilsons' Bronx, N.Y., household. Consequently, Ron Wilson often wore his father's clothes.

"To this day my toes curl in" from wearing his father's shoes, Wilson complains. His father is just 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10, average by national standards. His mother was a Lilliputian 4-foot-9. Being tall "used to be a real hang-up, (including) the stereotype of tall, black and coming from the city streets," says Wilson, who is black. "My biggest hang-up was the stereotype (that) you've got to play basketball.

"I am not a basketball player," Wilson stresses with an obviously practiced inflection.

The Waikle family, however, is chock-full of basketball players. Moreover, the Waikles' two sons reached Wilson's height by the time they were in ninth grade.

Lounging in their Mission Viejo living room, the carpet strewn with seemingly endless legs, the Waikles talked recently about being tall in a world where, as Gary puts it, "the principal disadvantage is that everything is built for the so-called average person. There's nothing built for us."

Karen answered the next question as she must have answered it a thousand times before. "We knew our children would be tall; I just didn't expect them to be as tall as they are.

"We measured them when they were small to calculate their eventual height. Girls are to be measured at 18 months, boys at 2 years."

Based on those calculations, the Waikles' 20-year-old daughter Connie should have stopped growing at 6-foot-2. Jim and his 20-year-old brother, John, were expected to reach only 6-foot-5.

"So much for that," says Jim, not only the tallest Waikle but also Orange County's tallest high school basketball player.

"There isn't a day that goes by," Connie says, "that someone doesn't come up and ask me how tall I am (or) do I play basketball. Every single day."

As a matter of fact, she does play basketball at San Diego State University. Her father played in high school and college, but he says now, "I didn't see the opportunities I had as clearly as I did for my kids."

Indeed, one reason the Waikle family moved to Mission Viejo from Orange was to allow the sons to play at Capistrano Valley High School, where "we'd heard a lot about the basketball program," Karen says.

It's no secret that there can be lucrative careers for the very few of the very tall who go on to play professional basketball. The thought has occurred to Jim.

To succeed, however, one first must be noticed. And if being tall means anything, it means "you never go unnoticed in life," Karen says.

Adds Jim: "My (high school) coach noticed me when I first came down here. I didn't even have to try out. He took me right off the street."

Spotting a tall person in a crowd of average-size folks is easy, mostly because 84.5% of American males are shorter than 6 feet, according to figures compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics in Washington. And 99.29% of men are shorter than 6-foot-4. The average height for men is 5 feet, 9 inches; for women, it is 5 feet, 3 or 4 inches, depending on age.

However, the "concept of average height seems to be distorted upward, and 5-4 or 5-5 is now considered short" for women, according to Dr. David Mosier, UC Irvine professor of pediatrics and an expert in growth disorders.

Since the 1960s, there also appears to have been "an abrupt change in attitudes of girls concerning their bodies," Mosier says.

Unlike 20 years ago, girls seem much less concerned about growing tall, he says. Also, the number of physicians administering estrogen to retard children's growth has declined.

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