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Giovanna Cassilly was in Los Angeles last Monday when she received the news she feared most. After trying to reach her husband for 24 hours, she got a phone call at about 8 a.m.
A worker had found Cassilly at the artist's massive north-city art project, Cementland. He was not OK.
"I immediately packed my bags and headed to the airport," recalls Giovanna.
The rest of the week would be a blur — arranging a funeral, meeting with friends (and attorneys) and telling her children Dylan, age eleven, and Robert III, six, the news: Their father — the vibrant and colorful mastermind behind St. Louis' cherished City Museum — was dead at a youthful 61.
It didn't seem possible. Yet at the same time, it did.
"I thought that eventually something like this would happen, but not this soon," says Giovanna. "I've never met anyone with his strength. He had a freaky amount of strength. Bob was a risk taker. Bob was invincible. He never wore a seat belt. He never wore helmets."
According to the City of St. Louis Office of the Medical Examiner, Cassilly sustained multiple traumatic injuries, including a severe head injury, while operating a bulldozer sometime between the evening of September 24 and morning of September 26.
The full medical report won't be completed for another three weeks at the earliest. Damage to the bulldozer, however, suggests that the vehicle rolled over once — perhaps twice — before landing upright on the base of a hill.
The artist would often lose track of time working on Cementland, a 55-acre site that to date includes a castle, tunnels, faux-Egyptian ruins and all manner of other creations, some of them small, others enormous. On the weekend of his death, Cassilly and Giovanna's children were staying with her parents. Giovanna had gone to bed early Saturday night and awoken early Sunday for a flight to LA. She figured her husband had come home after she went to bed and left before she awoke.
When he failed to return her texts all that day, Giovanna began to call Cassilly's friends and employees. Rick Fortner, one of Cassilly's long-time employees (a member of the so-called Cassilly Crew) found Cassilly in the cab of the bulldozer Monday morning.
Giovanna, a painter, says she's confident the crew will keep Cassilly's vision alive, both at the City Museum and at Cementland.
"What is really neat about the crew is you have people who have been so loyal to him and worked for him for decades," she says. "When you work with someone so closely, they get a good idea and good sense as to what is next. Between that and my own conversations with Bob, and the sketches and ideas of his I have, we're pretty optimistic as a team that we'll move forward."
Rick Erwin, director of the City Museum, displayed the same confidence last week. "When things settle down a bit, we'll decide how to proceed," says Erwin. "But we know we're going to move forward. We even had former employees calling us, offering to lend a hand and do what they could to help."
Cassilly did not leave a will, which means his spouse becomes the personal representative of his estate in probate court. Cassilly was the sole owner of Cementland. In City Museum he had a business partner in David Jump, owner of the barge firm American Milling and a major player in downtown real estate. "From what I know of American Milling, they're fully supportive of what we're doing," says Erwin. (Jump did not return calls requesting comment.) Giovanna says that she will now become David Jump's partner in City Museum.
On Saturday afternoon several hundred people gathered for a memorial for Cassilly at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
Mayor Francis Slay acknowledged how Cassilly saw beauty in discarded pieces of St. Louis' past and displayed those artifacts in his City Museum. He also noted Cassilly's penchant for breaking the rules.
"Bob had a knack for getting noticed. Artists noticed him. Building inspectors noticed him," Slay told those who had gathered. "Most of all, children noticed him. Bob was the best ambassador to St. Louis — to the universe."
Max Cassilly, Bob's son from an earlier marriage, spoke of his father's childlike imagination. "He loved us [Cassilly kids] more than anything, and we're the reason you all are here, because without no kids in his life, he never would have built the City Museum."
After the public ceremony Saturday, family and friends proceeded to Cementland, where they cast Cassilly's ashes into the Mississippi River and lit a bonfire in his honor.
"I know my husband pretty well, and I can say with certainty that he can't be placed in a box in the ground. That wouldn't work for him," says Giovanna. "He loved to canoe and would take the boys canoeing a lot to the island across the river. This is what he would want."
Giovanna says Robert III has yet to cry for his father's passing. Instead, he has been molding clay, just as his father had taught him.
"He's been busy all week making models, and I've got to say they're quite impressive," Giovanna reports. "Look out, St. Louis, there's another Bob Cassilly in the works."
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