Beloved principal retires from Alta High after 27 years as administrator, athletic director
When Ron Mueller was an undergraduate student at Westmar College in LeMars, he received some clear-cut advice from one of his advisors, Dr. Helen Oliver: stay in the education field.
Mueller, who originally planned on being a farmer, took his advisor's words to heart, and has been cultivating minds and attitudes of students rather than corn and soybeans for the past four decades.
Tomorrow will mark the final day for Mueller in the education field, and, after 9,855 days spent helping students, teachers and fellow administrators in the Alta school system, the former principal and athletic director said it was time for him to walk off the educational playing field.
"It just seemed like the right time to do this," Mueller, 61, said. "I love working with kids, and still enjoy working with kids very much, but it just seemed like this was a good time to call it the end of the game, so to speak."
Born and raised on a farm near Danube, Minn., a small town on U.S. Highway 212 approximately 53 miles northeast of Marshall, Minn., Mueller, the valedictorian of his high school class, was also an athlete, and excelled at several sports, including basketball. While he knew he wanted to play basketball at the collegiate level, he also had an interest in farming, but his father quickly made sure his son went to postsecondary school instead.
"I really liked farming, and I was going to stay on the farm, but my dad told me that if I thought about staying on the farm he would sell it," Mueller laughed. "He wanted to make sure I went to school, so that was the end of the farming for me."
Westmar University seemed like the right choice to both play basketball and further his education, and decided to go into education because it offered an opportunity for him to stay involved with athletics through coaching.
Mueller majored in math and physical education and minored in physics at Westmar, and, after earning a master's degree at the University of South Dakota, took his teaching abilities to a school in Round Lake, Minn., where he quickly learned to handle a large workload in both teaching and coaching.
"I was the math teacher," Mueller said. "I had to teach all of the courses, such as algebra, geometry, secondary algebra and senior math to all of the students in grades 7-12, and then there were only two of us at the school who were coaches too, because there weren't girls' athletics at that time, so I coached basketball and baseball and was assistant football coach, and the other guy was everything else. It was something else."
The following year, Mueller married his fiancee, Nancy, and took a job in Sibley, where he stayed for five years before heading down Highway 71 to Tri-Center of Neola in southwest Iowa, where he was hired as a math teacher, coach and athletic director.
After spending six years at Tri-Center, Mueller, who had recently earned his secondary school administrative degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, heard about an administrative position opening in Alta, and decided to pursue the Alta principal and athletic director positions to get beyond the comfort zone of the classroom.
"I just felt I should expand in education beyond the classroom," Mueller said. "Not that there's anything wrong with being a 40-year classroom teacher, because I admire people who do that. But, for me, I thought I should try to do something beyond that and go into the administrative field."
It was the first time Mueller had been given the reigns to an administrative position, but he said his prior experience as athletic director at Tri-Center helped him make a smooth transition from the classroom to the principal's office.
"The fact that I had had 12 years of teaching experience, five years of being an athletic director and years of coaching experience was a big benefit to me," Mueller said. "You experience so many things, particularly in athletics, that go beyond the classroom. You hear parental concerns and things that cause people to be upset, and you have to deal with these areas that aren't black and white. So, being an athletic director and coach really was good training for being a principal."
That training helped Mueller to be able to handle questions ranging from a variety of different sources on topics ranging from scheduling to coaching decisions to the performance of activity sponsors, and Mueller said his longevity at Alta High has allowed him to manage those situations more successfully.
"When you do stay in one place for a long time, and especially at a smaller school, you do get to know everybody and that's helpful, because you do get to know people and families and situations," Mueller said. "That's an advantage of a smaller school, because you can get to know everybody. That's a big benefit."
Mueller said the ability to be diplomatic in situations stems from his philosophy of discipline and treatment of students and others, which focuses more on providing fair treatment and listening to them rather than being strict and unyielding.
"I strongly believe that the way you see people is the way you treat them. And the way you treat them is what they become. I've always tried to follow in my years of teaching," Mueller said. "My feeling about discipline isn't that you're supposed to hit someone over the head with a board, but you have to have respect and sincerity.
"If you deal respectfully and sincerely with people, then there can be only a really small, small percent of people that don't reciprocate," Mueller continued. "I think that's the right thing to do, and I think you get a more cooperative student body that way, too, because they know that you will treat them with respect, and I think they appreciate that."
The dual job of both athletic director and principal has taken up much of Mueller's time, as he not only gives direction to teachers and students on subjects in the high school, but also coordinates athletic schedules, hires referees for games and arranges transportation to and from different towns for sporting events.
While he could have given up the A.D. position at any time, Mueller said he never felt that the extra job was a burden on either his time or his energies.
"I've really enjoyed the athletic director position," Mueller said. "I also started doing the A.D. position when there weren't as many sports available, so I've been able to grow with the role as we've added more sports, such as cross-country, softball, wrestling, volleyball and girls track. That has helped me quite a bit."
In addition to an influx of new sports, Mueller said he has also seen a number of changes in the entire education profession in the 39 years he has spent in the field, including new ideas such as Phase III, Title 19, performance objectives, standards and benchmarks, modular scheduling, block scheduling, I.E.P.'s and modern math.
The goals of these programs were to help provide a better educational experience for students, but Mueller said many of them are only taking away valuable time for teachers instead.
"There have been so many things that have come through that were supposed to be the ultimate," Mueller said. "We have all of these other things, but really, it all boils down to what I call Project Teach. Here's your students, here's your classroom, here's your materials, now teach. That makes the most sense to me."
Mueller's two daughters, Laurie and Mary, are pharmacists in Cedar Rapids and son Bill is a third grade teacher at South Hamilton of Jewell near Ames, and he said he and Nancy may move to one of those areas to be closer to their children.
While he may move away from the town in the future, he said he will always remember the positive experiences he has had at the school.
"When I look back on my days, I really think that's what I was supposed to do," Mueller said. "I really believe my purpose in life was to work with and help young people, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. It's been a great, great experience for me."