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Richard Mueller

One-Way Ticket to Lake Tahoe-Reno

Richard & Claire Mueller bid farewell at last year's
Celebration Gala in May 2010.

As HKIS prepares to bid farewell to Richard and Claire Mueller after 27 years of service and connection with the school, DragonTales sat down to talk with Richard about the past and explore the future...

Surrounded by some of his favorite photographs depicting a lifetime of travel and adventure,
Richard Mueller tells me about a trip he is planning back to their new home between Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada in late June. The difference this time, he says, is that after five years here he will not be returning to Hong Kong to resume his role as Head of School.

“This summer I’m going home with no return date on my ticket,” he smiles. “Claire and I are retiring to pursue new adventures after 27 wonderful years of association with HKIS.”

Richard first experienced HKIS in November 1982, during a trip enroute to China. “I had heard of the school because many U.S. Consulate General families sent their children to HKIS.”

“I felt that HKIS could offer a good education for our sons, Jonathan and Eric, both whom I felt were very capable, as all parents do of their children!”

Photo opportunity with HKIS Senate students following
a meeting in 2009

During his first visit to the school in 1982, including a conversation and tour with Elementary Principal Darrell Wallis, (whose son, Mark, is now a member of our Board of Managers), he noticed a heartfelt caring for children about the place. “There was also a Christian ethos as well as an understanding, support and respect for people of different cultures and faiths. I was impressed.”

Richard says what he discovered at HKIS during that first visit nearly 30 years ago is still present today: “We are a school grounded in the Christian faith and proud of it. Those are our origins. Also, as our mission states, we want students to learn about and respect other faiths. If somebody is Jewish, we respect they are Jewish. We hope to see students and adults engage in spiritual and religious discussion and learning. I think that is a special, HKIS quality.”
When his family eventually moved to Hong Kong in 1983, his sons, Jonathan and Eric, attended elementary school, and Jim Handrich was the new principal. Soon after, Richard was invited to join the Board of Managers. He remembers thinking,“Why do they want me?”

However, the idea of being able to give back to HKIS appealed to him, and he joined the Board. Richard soon found himself heavily involved in the issues of the school. One was the future of the Chinese language program and whether it should be Mandarin or Cantonese. Another was, ‘Do we build a new high school in Tai Tam or the New Territories, or not at all, since the 1997 reversion of sovereignty to China was just ahead?’

“I will never forget my first trip to Tai Tam and being shown the parcel of land the government was offering HKIS and asking, ‘Where’s the proposed site?’ There was nothing but the slope of a hillside. Then Patrick Lau, our architect, said, ‘Yes you can build on that, you can build a very nice complex. ’ And he was absolutely right.” That’s the site on which today’s High School and Middle School stand.

Richard enjoys the artwork of some Middle School students

Richard and his family left Hong Kong in 1986, but returned again in 1993 – Richard as United States Consul General to Hong Kong. Their son Eric finished his junior and senior years at HKIS, graduating in 1996. Richard says he felt a strong relationship with the school and Church of All Nations, a Lutheran congregation associated with the school. One way he found to serve was by inviting students and teachers to lectures, presentations and concerts at the Consul General’s residence.

“Bon Jovi came to town, so I called up David Rittman and Jim Handrich and told them Claire and I were hosting a reception for the band and wondered if the high school would like to send some students and teachers to attend. It was great to have the opportunity to offer this. There were many similar occasions, such as Winton Marsalis as well as the Boston Symphony.”

As U.S. Consul General, Richard officiated at the opening ceremony of the new Middle School building in November 1994 – which had indeed been ‘very nicely’ built on the same hillside that he had seen and questioned some years earlier.

When he finished his service as Consul General, Richard worked with the Asia Society in Hong Kong from 1996 to 1998 on a leave of absence from the State Department. It was during this period that he served a year as Board Chair, his second stint on the Board of Managers. “The view from the Chair’s side of the table is an altogether different one from that of Head of School! But the working relationship is close and collaborative.”

Richard worked closely with Chuck Dull, Head of School in his first year, who led the Board and school through an envisioning and planning process that year, culminating in what are today’s Mission Statement and Student Learning Results.

Richard with Jim Handrich, who was his sons' Elementary Principal

Richard points out that Claire’s connections with HKIS are as deep and longstanding as his own. She worked at the Middle School 1995-96 before resuming her Foreign Service career. “Even when she was working full-time at the Consulate General, Claire was involved with teachers, students and with me and my Board activities. Moreover, since 2005 while I have been Head of School she has contributed to all aspects of school life. In so many ways, it has been a real partnership between Claire and me and the school.”

When he left Hong Kong to become Head of School at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts in 1998, Richard never imagined he would return to HKIS as Head of School. However, in 2005, that’s exactly what happened. “In some ways, coming back here as Head describes my life. Things happened I never planned for... It took me a while to get my head around the idea of returning to HKIS; it came so unexpectedly. Who knows, I may be back again,” he quips.

Richard will treasure many fond memories of his time as Head of School. The most special memories revolve around the students. “My discussions with students interested in international relations and the world and my dialogue with the High School Student Senate around leadership and change are highlights.”

There have also been opportunities for him to get to know individual students. “I have memories of Andrew Yip ’06 who was here during my first year. In addition to his strong academic accomplishments, he learned to play the organ at Church of All Nations. On graduating, he went off to a wonderful education at Lewis and Clark. His father – Philip Yip – is a security guard at school, and his family has been so grateful for the experience Andrew had at HKIS.”

Holding up a card from high school student Cathie So thanking him for his time, Richard says he has learned alternative perspectives about the world through the eyes of students like Cathie. “She is very interested in politics and history, and we’ve had some good conversations.”

Rummaging through his papers, Richard locates a note from a Lower Primary student, John Cassidy, wishing him a happy birthday and thanking him for reading the book It’s a Fine Fine School to his class. “I don’t think it was my birthday, but still...”smiles Richard.

“Another young student wrote to me to show how well he had learned to write and that he had gotten better and better and wanted me to see it. Some Middle School students dropped by my office a few weeks back just to say hello and asked if I had ten minutes. Of course I did; I showed them some of my photos of China and we talked about school; we had a good chat.”

Richard holds these interactions dear as he prepares to embark on the next chapter of his life. Aside from school, students and friends, Richard will miss Hong Kong.

“I’m going to miss the adrenaline. I’ll miss the double-decker tram ride from Western to Shau Kei Wan. The slow pace of the tram slows me down and is a nice antidote to the hyperactive drive that is Hong Kong. I’ll miss hiking the Dragon’s Back, a family favorite” he says pausing, before giving off the biggest of smiles and saying, “Yes, I am going to miss this place.”

Mueller family Christmas holiday in Hong Kong 2007

Retirement in the Lake Tahoe and Reno area, however, is already starting to look busy for the Muellers with a new grandson on the way – their first – and Richard having accepted an invitation to join the Board of Trustees at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco. He also has in mind working with his son Jonathan’s non-profit education organization, Sierra-Nevada Journeys. They will also spend time with Eric, who is an aerospace engineer with NASA’s Ames Research Center, and his fiancée, Susan, in San Francisco…

“I want to find opportunities to stay plugged in and use my diplomatic and Foreign Service experience to educate young people about what’s going on around the world. I’m not going to let my mind run down – I plan to be a lifelong learner,” he insists.

This retirement will be the first time that both Richard and Claire have not had a demanding job. “We’ll have more flexibility and freedom to travel. Strangely, I have spent most of my life traveling the world, but have seen little of my own country. We have much U.S. travel planned. I am sure we will reconnect with friends from our time in Hong Kong, many of them with HKIS connections.”

Even though Nevada and California are a long way from Hong Kong, Richard and Claire intend to stay connected with HKIS. “We have been blessed in so many ways through our lives and careers. Our association with the school has been among the most satisfying, and serving so many parents and students over these years has been our privilege.

I am also proud of our HKIS alumni – current and future. I have enjoyed watching them mature and grow; and I am extremely happy now to be joining their ranks.

Source:  DragonTales Volume 13 Summer Edition 2010