Igor Vovkovinskiy first came to Rochester’s Mayo Clinic in 1989 as a child for a condition that brought him immense physical struggles, local celebrity and international attention.
He grew to become the tallest man in America at just over 7 feet, 8 inches and ended up making the southeastern Minnesota city his home.
Vovkovinskiy’s size was due to a tumor pressing against his pituitary gland and causing it to secrete abnormal levels of growth hormone. He had diabetes and other health problems, and died from heart disease Friday. He was 38.
His older brother, Oleh Ladan of Brooklyn Park, said Vovkovinskiy was a celebrity when he arrived from his native Ukraine because of his size and the flickering Cold War of the late 1980s. But Ladan said Vovkovinskiy “would have rather lived a normal life than be known.”
In an interview on “60 Minutes Australia” when he was 29, Vovkovinskiy said it was a different experience every day to look at the world from his height. “I always have to think about: Am I endangering my life? Nothing is built for my size so everything is a challenge,” he said.
Over his life, he also appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and was called out by President Barack Obama during a campaign rally in 2009. He was featured in the 2007 show, “Inside Extraordinary Humans: The Science of Gigantism.” In 2013, he carried the Ukrainian contestant onto the stage in the wildly popular “Eurovision Song Contest.”
His mother, Svetlana Vovkovinska, an ICU nurse at the Mayo Clinic, initially posted about his death on Facebook. She had more than 450 comments by late Sunday.
On “60 Minutes,” his mother said her son was 11 pounds at birth. By the time he was 6, he was 6 feet tall, and she brought him to the Mayo Clinic, expecting to stay a month.
When he was 27, Vovkovinskiy traveled to New York City and was declared America’s tallest living person by a Guinness World Records adjudicator on Oz’s show. He edged out a sheriff’s deputy in Virginia by one-third of an inch.
Vovkovinskiy lived with his mother in a house with special cathedral ceilings. He graduated from Rochester’s John Marshall High School and earned a two-year college degree from the city’s community college. He dreamed of being a lawyer, but his physical challenges were staggering.
At Obama’s rally, the president called him out, noticing him a few feet from the stage wearing a T-shirt that read, the “World’s Biggest Obama Supporter.” After the recognition, Vovkovinskiy said Obama’s health insurance initiatives were “something I can’t live without.”
In 2012, he issued a plea on Facebook to cover the estimated $16,000 cost for specially made shoes that wouldn’t cause him crippling pain. At the time, he said he hadn’t owned a pair for years that fit his size 26 feet.
“I’d like to do simple things, like maybe go window shopping at a mall. I haven’t done that in about four years. Maybe walk my dog, go fishing,” he said.
Thousands donated more than double what he needed. The attention got him an invitation to a Minnesota Timberwolves game. Reebok provided the custom shoes for free.
In recent years, Ladan said his brother’s health problems worsened and he struggled to walk but was a devoted uncle to his nephew Andriy Ladan, 14, and niece Kristina Ladan, 8.
In addition to his brother, niece, nephew and mother, Vovkovinskiy is survived by his stepsister Olha Ladan of Ukraine. He is preceded in death by his father, Oleksandr Ladan, of Ukraine.
A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at Ranfranz and Vine Funeral Homes in Rochester.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747