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Perry Bascom: Attorney Gave Back To The City He Loved

Perry Bascom
Provided by the family

If you looked across a crowded room at a party and saw Perry Bascom, you might get the impression that he was just another unreconstructed preppy on his way to play tennis. Or should you glimpse him on his way to work, you might conclude he was one more soul heading downtown to commence another day of quiet desperation in business.

Indeed, Mr. Bascom was born to crew-neck sweaters and khaki pants and bespoke suits and button-down collar shirts. His background was privileged. He was beneficiary of some of America’s greatest educational resources. In 1954 he graduated from John Burroughs School; and in 1958, from Yale University with a B.A. in English; and in 1961, from Harvard Law with a Legum Baccalaureus.

All such evidence, however, reinforces wisdom that is entirely applicable to Mr. Bascom: Looks are deceiving. Although the cuts of his clothing provided clues about him, about his essential traditionalism, for example, the clothes did not make this particular man, nor did the quality of them pronounce adequately the extraordinary qualities of him, nor did they show forth the progressive muscle of him or the vital essence of him, nor could they possibly convey the generosity of spirit that animated him.

He was many things to many people, but one with himself.

Calvin Perry Bascom II died early Tuesday morning at home in the Central West End at the age of 78. Members of his family, including Maizey, his beloved Golden Retriever, were in attendance. He suffered manfully for almost six years with what he described with characteristic nonchalance as a “troublesome blood disease,” but which was in fact a severe manifestation of Myelodysplastic syndromes, — bone marrow cancer. Compounding the misery, he was diagnosed earlier this year with lung cancer. All of this left him physically frail, yet strong of character to the end.

Mr. Bascom was born in Boston, hometown of his mother, Jean Ames Hall Bascom, and soon thereafter moved with his parents to St. Louis, hometown of his father, William R. Bascom. He was reared in Ladue in a wonderful, old house that looked to have been transported from New England, but as an adult he emigrated proudly from suburbia to the city’s Central West End. He spent most of his adult life there, reared his children there and found there abundant satisfaction for his appetite for diversity and variety.

Mentoring in law

He served in the U.S. Army Reserves (artillery) at Fort Sill, Okla., then began his career as a lawyer in 1962 at the old Bryan, Cave, McPheeters & McRoberts law firm (now called Bryan Cave). He stuck with law and the firm for 33 years, specializing in banking and real estate law. While there, he represented financial institutions and real estate interests, and wrote articles with titles such as “Lender Liability in the Context of Participated Credits.”

Mark B. Hillis is now a principal in the law firm of Carmody MacDonald in Clayton, but as a young lawyer worked with Mr. Bascom at Bryan Cave. In an email, Hillis wrote, “Perry was (and remains) a mentor to so many of the commercial finance and real estate lawyers who had the benefit of learning with him at his desk at Bryan Cave. His patience and attention to accurate legalisms were well known and appreciated, as was his sense of proportion when it came to balancing the personal and professional pressures every young lawyer experiences. He was all ears, all the time,” Hillis wrote, “and conveyed his advice not by top down command but by example.”

Hillis continued, “His range of interests outside of the law were not only well known, but also served as a model for those who searched for such interests. From studying the history of many properties in the city to bird spotting to the ‘hills of Kansas’ to his love of his canines (and those of his friends), he sparked interest and inspired curiosity.”

Illuminating the Arch

In 1995, Mr. Bascom opened a new chapter of his life as administrator of the Gateway Foundation in St. Louis, the organization responsible for the placement of sculptures by significant modern and contemporary artists one finds in prominent places all around town, as well as for the creation of one of the region’s most dynamic and magnetic cultural assets, Citygarden, the sculpture park on the Gateway Mall in downtown St. Louis.

Mr. Bascom was brought to this work by his childhood friend, Peter Fischer, board chairman of the foundation. When Mr. Bascom joined Gateway, a main focus of its attention was the illumination of architectural monuments around the city. Three prominent ones are the Old Courthouse, the Civil Courts building and the Gateway Arch.

The Arch lighting project presented a number of challenges for Mr. Bascom. The Arch is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and thus is under federal jurisdiction, specifically the National Park Service, an agency of U.S. Department of the Interior. In addition, it is a monument in which various vocal constituencies have issues, opinions and concerns. As a gauge of the complexities involved in getting approval for the lighting project, it took Mr. Bascom four and a quarter years before the flood lamps were finally lighted on the blustery evening of Nov. 22, 2001.

On Wednesday, Fischer recalled Mr. Bascom’s efforts to light up the Arch. He also took notice of the fact that this project was one Mr. Bascom regarded as quite distasteful.

In spite of that, “Perry was the primary Gateway contact with the Park Service,” Fischer said. “As I said to him at the time, it took only four years and three months to accomplish something not of his wanting. If he’d wanted to have it lit, it would have taken six years.” The reason for that was a cantankerous subdivision of Mr. Bascom’s personality. Had he been in favor of the lighting, his patience would have been taxed by delays and red tape, and without doubt he’d have expressed his impatience clearly, and (to say the least) the process would have been slowed considerably.

In any event, Fischer said Mr. Bascom dragged his feet. Finally, “I told him, Just Go On!” And so he did.

Mr. Bascom was not particularly interested in the installations of sculpture initiated and sponsored by Gateway. “The only time he’d go to a museum was under cover of darkness,” Fischer said. “He was not deeply involved with the art. He helped, but he had no enthusiasm in regard to sculpture.”

Recording history

Mr. Bascom retired from the Gateway Foundation in 2002, and for the last dozen years has had serious fun, and here’s an example.  Should a person mention to him that he or she might be traveling west, information generated by Mr. Bascom would be forthcoming intended to direct the traveler to various points of interest, some rather off the beaten path and rather obscure. If the prospective traveler mentioned Kansas, an encyclopedic supply of information would be forthcoming. His Bascom ancestors had deep roots there; his interest in all things Kansan was keen. The traveler sometimes came home to St. Louis without having stopped at every marker or without paying a visit to every museum or fort noted by Mr. Bascom. Although his disappointment was evident so was his willingness to forgive such fecklessness, and to forget it.

His interest in history was consuming and led to his becoming a contributor to publications of the Missouri Historical Society and to publications meant only for his family’s edification. He was fascinated by the history of his urban neighborhood as well as that of the vast American West, and of the art of Native Americans. He loved road trips and learned from them, and until waylaid by a gathering storm of symptoms this year, he was planning to drive to Montana, where he’d rented accommodations at a dude ranch for himself and his family.

He was concerned about the vitality and preservation of our nation’s national parks and forests and of wilderness areas and reclamation areas. He watched birds; he maintained a well-manicured yard and grew vegetables. He has a particular fondness for rocks. He brought soup, liquid and metaphorical, to the infirm. He embraced Trinity Episcopal Church with attention. He wrote, in the autobiographical third person, that “Trinity combines the dignified, formal Anglo-Catholic tradition of ‘smells and bells’ with a dedicated progressivism, the latter of which he had a hard time swallowing but which eventually swallowed him.”

Perhaps because he was so spiritually and philosophically swallowed, he enjoyed participating in “anything to do with making our small part of this earthly sphere just a little bit more inhabitant friendly.”

And so, with honesty and quiet deliberation, traditionally and progressively, he did just that. 

Mr. Bascom's survivors include his wife, Sally Cissel Greenwood; his sister, Dede Bascom, Pollock Pines, Calif.; his brothers, William (Melanie), of St. Louis, and Toby (Annette) of  Darmstadt, Germany; his daughters, Brooke Bascom (Wellesley Chapman), Seattle, Wash., and Heather Bascom (Wade Schneider), of Eminence, Mo; two “almost daughters”:  Sarah Greenwood (Andy Gelle) and Amy Greenwood Dunaway (Tyler), both of St. Louis; eight grandchildren, Zoe and Elliott Chapman, Billy Schneider, Jane, Teddy and Charlie Dunaway, and Calvin and Duff Gelle; by Maizey; and by his former wife, Carla Mueller Bascom, Eminence, Mo.

A memorial Mass will be at 3:30 p.m.,  Sunday, Nov. 9, at Trinity Church, 600 North Euclid Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63108. In lieu of flowers the family asks that contributions be made to the Edward W. Cissel Jr. Memorial Fund at John Burroughs School, 755 South Price Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63124; or to Trinity Church; or to the Humane Society of Missouri 1201 Macklind Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63110.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.