UPDATE: St. Louis City Museum founder Bob Cassilly found dead

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 | 8:51 a.m. CDT; updated 11:18 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 27, 2011

ST. LOUIS— St. Louis civic leaders and its art community are in shock following the death of Bob Cassilly, who is being remembered as a driving creative force in the city.

The 61-year-old founder of the eclectic City Museum was found dead Monday in a bulldozer he had been driving around at his latest project, a former cement plant he was converting into an adult amusement park known as Cementland.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that friends and authorities think the death was an accident. They think the bulldozer slid on a hill and flipped before landing upright. Police and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration were investigating because it is a workplace facility.

It wasn't clear when Cassilly died. Relatives began to worry when he didn't pick up his children late Sunday, said Bruce Gerrie, a curator at City Museum and Cassilly's longtime friend.

"Bob lived a life of excitement, and I'm glad that he didn't have to suffer from anything," Gerrie said. "He went out as he was."

Cassilly was known as an unconventional thinker who was unafraid to embrace the strange. He was a sculptor who unveiled Turtle Park — turtle and snake sculptures near Forest Park — in 1996.

A year later, he and his former wife, Gail, opened City Museum, which has become a leading St. Louis attraction with its unique combination of things to see and do, including artifacts and unique art as well as climbing tunnels, slides and even a Ferris wheel on the roof of the museum.

Though admired by city and civic leaders, Cassilly could be frustrating to them, too. He once spray painted tears and messages on the turtles at Turtle Park after the city put a protective resin on them, which he considered an affront to their integrity.

And in 2002, Cassilly and Gerrie were arrested after locking themselves in a parked car to protest the demolition of an old church tower. Police had to break into the vehicle and wrestle them out.

Cassilly also drew some criticism for what some saw as safety hazards at City Museum, which has been the subject of more than 25 personal injury cases.

Still, Cassilly was embraced by many local officials who believed he brought a vibrant energy to the city. U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, a St. Louis Democrat, called Cassilly a "creative legend." Mayor Francis Slay said "the city has lost some of its wonder" and that Cassilly "pushed the envelope of what was possible."

Cassilly grew up in St. Louis and began sculpting when he was a teenager. He moved briefly to Hawaii before returning to St. Louis.

Cassilly and Gail divorced in 2002. His current wife, Melissa, was in California when she learned of her husband's death. The couple have two young children. Cassilly is also survived by two children from a previous marriage.

On Monday afternoon, City Museum employees gathered at the building to talk and console each other.

"Right now, we're at a loss," said Rick Erwin, the museum's director.

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