Art for a hero

A mural of Chuck Cassidy, a Philadelphia police officer who was killed in the line of duty in 2007, was unveiled on the walls of the Penn-Crisp Gym last Wednesday. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Chuck Cassidy may be best-known as a Philadelphia police officer who was killed in the line of duty almost seven years ago, but there was a lot more to the man than his badge and gun. For example, Cassidy coached girls basketball and softball, along with soccer for both girls and boys with the Crispin Gardens Athletic Club in Holme Circle.

“There were girls who played for him a long time and never knew he was a police officer until he died,” Cassidy’s widow, Judy, told the Northeast Times last Wednesday after local youth sports groups, elected officials and the city’s Mural Arts Program unveiled a mural of the slain cop on the walls of the Penn-Crisp Gym.

Chuck Cassidy, 54, was shot fatally by an armed robber at an East Oak Lane Dunkin’ Donuts on Oct. 31, 2007. The patrol officer was assigned to a special anti-robbery detail in the 35th district at the time following a series of gunpoint heists involving businesses in the area. Cassidy was making a routine visit to the doughnut shop when he walked in on a crime in progress. The robber instantly turned toward the front door, walked up to Cassidy and shot him. The crook stole the officer’s gun and fled, but was captured, convicted and sentenced to death.

“I remember that tragic day, but tonight is really a celebration. We get to memorialize what kind of person Chuck really was,” City Councilman Bobby Henon said, describing Cassidy as heroic for being a dedicated father, youth coach and public servant.

Penn-Crisp Board President Tony Coco and Henon developed the concept for the memorial and convinced the nationally-acclaimed Mural Arts Program to adopt the project. Classically trained artist Jon Laidacker created the work, assisted by Charles Newman, Laura Velez and Thomas Walton.

The mural covers the walls of the gym lobby and a multi-purpose lunch and meeting room. The primary image features a bigger-than-life rendering of Cassidy at ease without his police uniform. According to Judy Cassidy, the image was taken from a wedding reception photo, although the artists substituted a white polo shirt for the subject’s formal attire.

“I wanted a more relaxed picture of him,” Judy Cassidy said. “Everybody always pictures him in uniform.”

Judy collaborated with the artists to design the mural, as did her daughters Katie and Colby and son John. The background is primarily sky blue with bands of green and gold. There are shaded images of youths playing various sports, as well as color renderings of a big shade tree and the Center City skyline as seen from a grassy Fairmount Park. Not every artist is cut out to be a muralist, according to Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program.

“You have to be able to negotiate and compromise and give people the dignity and respect they deserve,” Golden said. “The artist paints the mural, but the vision comes from the people we work with.”

“This from the start has really been a perfect project,” Laidacker said.

Opened in 1998, Penn-Crisp Gym serves two area youth programs: Crispin Gardens A.C. and Penn-Academy Athletic Association. City Councilman Dennis O’Brien helped the groups develop the gym and obtain state funding to build it when O’Brien was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

O’Brien also helped dedicate the mural, as did Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby, who expects the mural to keep Cassidy’s memory alive among future generations.

“Chuck was taken from us a couple of weeks after I took office in 2007. Since then, I’ve really become close friends with Judy and her family,” McNesby said. “And I’d give anything to get Chuck back. In ten, twenty and thirty years, kids are going to be coming into this gym saying, ‘Who was that?’ And I think that’s what we all want.” ••