Mueller and the ties that bind

Brian Brown, ReporterI’ve covered death before.

Being a business reporter means covering the news business professionals care most about, and sometimes that involves write-ups following the death of a leader.

Being a person means I’ve felt the weight of loss, too. We all have, right? If you are going to live very long, you’re going to feel that weight.

This week I was reminded of the ties that bind us in an interview with Paul Mueller Co. CEO David Moore and his uncle, former CEO Larry Mueller.

On Jan 19, the company’s namesake, Paul Mueller, died in his Springfield home at age 99. Mueller is widely credited with helping to birth a stainless steel industry in the area, which now employs some 2,600 people locally through 28 companies. His own business, founded in 1940, today employs about 1,000 folks and serves roughly 50 countries.

MrMueller2

Paul Mueller, founder of Paul Mueller Co., died on Jan. 19.

This week, I sought an interview with David to talk about his grandfather’s legacy. With a Wednesday evening deadline, I still didn’t know when I came to work Wednesday morning if I was going to get a chance. Via Jay Holden – a new marketing manager for the company that started the day the founder died – I was offered the opportunity to meet with David and Larry in the afternoon at the family farm east of Strafford.

After lunch talking shop with Jay in the former Mueller-owned Springfield Brewing Co., he drove me and SBJ photographer Wes Hamilton out to the property. Jay had mentioned that doing the interview with Larry at the family farm would make him more comfortable.

David and Larry pose near man-made lakes on Paul Mueller’s “country” home.

David and Larry pose near man-made lakes at Paul Mueller’s “country” home.

The opportunity had come as something of a shock. I have interviewed David before, but he’s admitted that he’s not entirely at ease when it comes to media attention. I thought I might just get a few provided statements in a brief five-minute conversation. I did not expect to be invited to the family gathering place.

David and I talked inside the house with a view of the lake in the background.

David and I talked inside the house with a view of the lake in the background.

The property was sprawling. The rolling Ozarks’ hills were yellow against a brisk wind and at least three small lakes dotted a valley with a modest, cozy home perched above the largest body of water. We sat at the kitchen table to talk.

Former Greene County Circuit Judge Miles Sweeney walked in the door. He was there with former Drury University President John Moore – no relation to David – fishing the man-made lakes Paul created. I talked to each briefly before they ducked out during the interview. It was never said, but I believe they had been hanging out with Larry, Paul’s only son out of seven kids.

I told David and Larry that I wouldn’t take up too much of their time, and they said they had plenty of time, but not necessarily a lot to say. We watched a video made in the Netherlands that gave me a brief company history as a kick-off to the interview.

David and Larry just after the interview

David and Larry just after the interview

They largely told me what I expected to hear. Paul was very inventive – he created 10 patents over his life – detailed oriented and had a tremendous work ethic. Even when he wasn’t working, he was tinkering. The farm had been his respite. David said Paul’s wife Nadine had wanted to live in the city and Paul wanted his home in the country, so they compromised and lived on Walnut Street for 60-plus years.

At the end of the interview, they broke out a letter that Larry’s sister Jeanie – wife of Bass Pro Shops founder John Morris – had provided. It was written by a teacher at Bass Pro’s W.O.L.F. school, who penned it after Paul’s death. In it, she said growing up in the area, she didn’t know that Paul Mueller was a real person. She talked about how the company employed many of her father’s friends. She associated the name with integrity and economic development. The business was part of her story, even if at a distance.

A letter of condolence penned by a W.O.L.F. teacher sits at the kitchen table.

A letter of condolence penned by a W.O.L.F. teacher sits at the kitchen table.

It was a reminder to me. Behind every business are people. As a practical matter, that’s nothing new, but certain moments drive that home and that was one of them for me.

With the lake reflecting in the background, I remembered that behind every bench there’s a kitchen table. Behind every school, there’s a fishing pole. At the end of the day, we all have uncles and nephews. And we all carry the weight of loss.

Thanks for the reminder.

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