Louis Casagrande, who made the Children’s Museum a go-to place for all of Boston, dies at 74

A voice to ensure that the Children’s Museum and similar institutions across the country served children and families of all cultural and racial backgrounds, Mr. Casagrande died Thursday at the Seasons Hospice in Milton from complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 74 and lived in retirement in Jaffrey, NH

While the Children’s Museum had a history of taking a multicultural approach to exhibits, Mr. Casagrande wanted to take its inclusivity to the next level and let underprivileged urban neighborhoods know that the institution belonged to them too.

“I think he was really committed to being a museum for all Bostonians,” said Carole Charnow, the museum’s current president and chief executive.

Trained as an anthropologist before taking a museum job in Minnesota and finding his life’s work, “Mr. Casagrande always brought this anthropological curiosity with him, trying to understand everything about the city’s culture,” said Kate Taylor, who was a museum administrator. when he was hired.

“He was an extraordinary leader at the Children’s Museum and that was clear from the start,” Taylor said. “Part of the mission, for him, was to expand the museum’s accessibility to all Boston neighborhoods.”

Mr. Casagrande also emphasized the museum’s role in Greater Boston’s educational setting.

“What I think is very strong is that museums should be part of the solution to change education,” he told the Globe.

“We are only part of the solution,” he added. “But one thing we’re doing really well is creating new tools and ways of teaching. We can help educators learn hands-on. We can be research and development centers for schools and places where teachers can come to reflect.”

Mr Casagrande “had a daring imagination,” Charnow said.

“Lou came up with big ambitions for the museum — for the Children’s Museum, but also for the Children’s Museum field,” said Leslie Swartz, senior vice president of research and program planning at the Children’s Museum. “I think he has done a lot to increase the appreciation of children’s museums and what they do.”

One of the organizations Mr. Casagrande helped run was the American Alliance of Museums, which he led from 2002 to 2004.

During and after his career as a museum director—he stepped down as president and chief executive of the Children’s Museum in 2009—Mr. Casagrande has been a resource to other museum leaders in New England and beyond.

Miranda Massie, founder and director of the Climate Museum in New York City, cited him in a 2015 interview on the alliance website as a key advisor in creating the institution.

“He’s intellectually brilliant and a visionary,” Massie said. “He is smart and wise on the business side. He is intuitive, warm and kind as a mentor.”

The oldest of four siblings, Louis B. Casagrande was born in New York City in 1947.

His parents, Mary Deveney Casagrande, who was from Scotland, and Joseph Casagrande had met in England during World War II, when she was working for British intelligence and he for American intelligence.

Mr. Casagrande spent his childhood in Washington, DC; Darien, Connecticut; and Urbana, Illinois, while his father advanced through the academic ranks to become chief of the anthropology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1965, Mr. Casagrande graduated from Urbana High School, where he had met Julie Petty. They married in 1969.

He graduated with honors from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, a master’s degree in international relations from American University in Washington, and a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Minnesota.

Always sober, Mr. Casagrande did not use his Dr. title, except occasionally while making dinner reservations.

While in Minnesota, he took a job at the Science Museum in St. Paul, where he was an anthropology curator and later senior vice president when he left for Boston.

“He never thought of becoming a museum professional — not in his wildest dreams,” his wife said. “It was a matter of, ‘Well, we’ll do this for a while,’ and he absolutely flourished. He loved it. It was a way to connect with the public, and it was a way to be an intellectual as well , and I would say Lou was definitely an intellectual.”

In Boston, Mr. Casagrande also worked to diversify the Children’s Museum board of trustees, while using his fundraising skills to bring about a $47 million, 23,000 square foot expansion in the Seaport District.

“Essentially what he did was open the museum on the waterfront,” Charnow said.

Swartz said he laid the groundwork for exhibitions such as “Boston Black,” “Countdown to Kindergarten,” and “Children of Hangzhou.”

The charisma and charm of Mr. Casagrande helped him to become part of the urban fabric of civil and government leaders.

“He loved Boston,” said his son, Joe of Brookline. “Boston really spoke to him.”

Shortly after Mr. Casagrande arrived, he formed an important alliance with then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

“He met Menino at a meeting,” Julie recalls, “and Menino said, ‘I’m the first Italian mayor of Boston,’ and Lou said, ‘That’s great, I’m the first Italian president of the Children’s Museum,’ and after that they were fast friends.”

A memorial service at the Children’s Museum will be announced for Mr Casagrande, who leaves behind a daughter, Elizabeth of Newburyport, in addition to his wife and son; a sister, Laurie of Minneapolis; and three grandsons.

Mr Casagrande “was the type of person who never did anything halfway,” his son said. “He always did everything to the fullest.”

Such was the case with his family, to whom he was devoted.

With friends, he formed a breakfast group for grandfathers where “everyone would show pictures and talk about their grandchildren,” said Ben Taylor, a former Globe publisher, and Kate’s husband, who was part of that group.

Mr Casagrande, Taylor said, “adored his grandchildren”: Lucca, Matteo and Roman.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, Mr. Casagrande travel as much as possible. For years he made annual visits to Mexico. “He always thought of Mexico as his second home,” his wife said.

After the diagnosis, they traveled extensively in the United States.

“I don’t want you to get the picture of Lou a cancer patient, sitting with a blanket over his legs,” Julie said. “In that time we have covered over 100,000 miles, driven everywhere. I don’t think there’s a place we haven’t covered.”

Mr. Casagrande “was really an anthropologist in the sense that he loved culture — he loved observing, studying and communicating,” Joe said. “He liked going to small towns all over the country, and he liked big cities. He was happy to walk the streets of Manhattan and he was happy to hang out in an Alabama resting place.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.

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