When the city of St. Louis learned yesterday that it had lost Bob Cassilly, it was a ripple felt throughout the arts community. For me personally, it was the loss of a friend who I knew for the past 25 years. Much has been written already about Bob and his museum, the one-of-a-kind experiential destination where kids were supposed to experience the joy of exploration, a place with a school bus on the roof and other things that could only be described as surreal and wonderful. Cassilly once told me that the last thing he wanted his museum to be was a carpeted, soft, sterile place where kids felt so safe there was no real fun left. He wanted a place of wonder where kids and adults could touch and climb and feel — to some extent — some risk. Today, City Museum stands as a museum masterpiece, a testament to one man’s creativity and lifelong pursuit.
But the story I remember most about Bob Cassilly is a little-known tale he told me about more than 20 years ago. In 1972, Bob was a young sculptor who happened to be on holiday in Rome. He was at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican admiring the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Bob recalled that it was a lovely morning in May, and he was just standing there with other admirers when suddenly a man with a long dark beard charged the marble masterpiece, climbed to the top, and began the horrific act of striking it with a steel hammer. As the attacker yelled something about being Jesus Christ, Cassilly said the first sickening blow occurred before anyone in the crowd could react.
As my eyes were getting bigger at the telling of the story, the story got better. Without a hint of excitement in his voice, what Cassilly told me next had me nearly falling out of my chair. He said he ran after the attacker, having to climb onto the Madonna’s head to reach him. Cassilly calmly said he was able to yank the insane man down by his heavy beard, both of them falling in a heap onto the floor in front of stunned and screaming onlookers. Although subdued and soon arrested, the man had unfortunately delivered several blows to the sculpture, actually breaking off the Madonna’s arm and causing damage that would take art restorers several years to repair.
The attacker turned out to be a deranged Hungarian man by the name of Lazlo Toth. Who knows what other damage could have been inflicted if, on that beautiful day in May, a young American sculptor by the name of Bob Cassilly had not been there.
Although Bob Cassilly left this earth too soon, in the end he accomplished two things that few people can lay claim to: he saved a world masterpiece and created another.
Rest in peace, Bob.