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Michael D. Mueller

“For a poor man, he lived a very rich life” (1951-2023)

Posted 8/15/23

Part 1 (1951-2015) by Michael D. Mueller

That is the parting message that appears on the headstone of Michael D. Mueller at Walnut Ridge Cemetery in Fayette, Missouri. Mr. Mueller died on July …

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Michael D. Mueller

“For a poor man, he lived a very rich life” (1951-2023)


Part 1 (1951-2015) by Michael D. Mueller

That is the parting message that appears on the headstone of Michael D. Mueller at Walnut Ridge Cemetery in Fayette, Missouri. Mr. Mueller died on July 13, 2023, in Washington, DC, at the age of 72.

Michael D. Mueller was born in Fayette on February 16, 1951, in the old Lee Hospital on the Square. He was the first-born child of Don and Betty Mueller. Though he traveled widely and sometimes lived abroad, he returned regularly to Fayette to visit family and friends.

Mr. Mueller attended Lawrence J. Daly Elementary School and Fayette High School. He was senior class president when he graduated in 1969. After a year and a half at Central Methodist College, he transferred to the University of Missouri at Columbia, where he received a B.A. in biology in 1975 and an M.S. in 1981.  

Mr. Mueller’s fondest memories of his youth were exploring the fields and forests behind the family home on Highway 5, cooling off at the Fayette Swimming Pool during the summer, and watching double features at the old Grand Theater. Chum and neighbor Tom Collier was a regular part of the fun. Tom and Mike bought bayonets through the mail when they were 12 and carried them like swords into the woods, where they fought Persian hordes and giant pythons. Imaginary, of course.

It was the Grand Theatre, above all, that inspired Michael Mueller to travel. Films brought South Pacific islands, Antarctica, and the African jungle to Fayette. During his life, Mr. Mueller visited all those places and many others.

The avid moviegoer sold popcorn and soft drinks at the old movie house as a teenager. When the Grand Theater closed in 1993, he wrote a three-part article for the local newspaper about the beloved old theater and the role it played in the community for 80 years. A personal anecdote told about the time Dan Hagan—a lifelong friend who became one of Missouri’s most successful businessmen—threw one of Mike’s shoes on top of the marquee. Dan retrieved the shoe by climbing through a window that only he was small enough to slip through, but only after Mike chased him around the Courthouse.

Mr. Mueller’s first trip abroad was to England. He was 19. In London, he obtained a last-minute Royal Circle ticket for the world premiere of Murphy’s War, starring Peter O’Toole. The ticket agent allowed Mr. Mueller to purchase the $100 ticket for $7. That evening he watched the movie with Mr. O’Toole and members of the Royal family.

During his college years in Columbia, Mr. Mueller was an orderly at the University of Missouri Medical Center. He worked in the medical intensive care unit—where he met Mike Spangler, another life-long friend—and on the pediatric ward. In 1974, he received a letter of commendation from the university for setting up and staffing a temporary intensive care unit in response to a community medical emergency.

After completing his B.A. in 1975, Mr. Mueller joined the U.S. Peace Corps. He was sent to Kenya, where he taught English and Biology at an all-girls school in the Kisii Highlands, east of Lake Victoria and north of the Masai Mara Game Park.

He developed a deep interest in the cultural traditions of the Kisii people, visiting witch doctors, diviners, medicine men, and traditional surgeons. Moreover, he photographed Kisii trepanation, an ancient form of skull surgery. Years later, he published an article about the operation (performed with a hacksaw blade) in The Explorers Journal.

Mr. Mueller visited Ethiopia and Tanzania while stationed in Kenya. In Ethiopia, he experienced his first brush with violent social unrest when a bomb went off in the street in Gondar. In Tanzania, Phil Sutter, Mike, and two other Peace Corps buddies—Allan Straus and Steve St. Michael—were chased by a rogue elephant at Lake Manyara National Park.

In 1978, the intrepid Mueller backpacked across Africa, making his way through Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, the Central African Empire, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia. In Zaire, he hiked into a mountain forest to observe a family of gorillas, visited the pygmies in the Ituri Forest, and traveled by boat down the Congo River and up the Ubangi River. He was thrown out of Chad at gunpoint and crossed the Sahara Desert on the back of an Algerian transport truck.

Mr. Mueller arranged an internship in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific in 1980 to complete his Master of Science in Public Health. He spent nearly a year on the island of Majuro, where he set up a high blood pressure program and helped create an office of health education. He also helped establish public health programs at Kwajalein Atoll, home to a major American military facility that supports missile testing and satellite communications.

During his graduate studies, Mr. Mueller nearly married a young woman from Venezuela. At one point, he traveled to her home country, the high point of the visit being a trip to the Venezuelan Andes. An account of the tumultuous relationship is included in Mr. Mueller’s autobiography, The Flight of the Mad Fody.

A series of losses in the late 1970s and early 1980s—including the death of his brother Dennis in a fire and the early passing of his mother—deeply affected the course of Mr. Mueller’s life. For 10 years, he was dogged by deep depression and quietly drank to excess. He spent several years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pursuing a doctorate, which he eventually abandoned.

All was not lost at Chapel Hill. Mr. Mueller met Dr. Jing Jie Yu there in 1986. Dr. Yu, a Ministry of Health official from Beijing, China, had been sent to UNC for graduate training. She was the director of China’s National Smoking Control Program. 

It was a serendipitous meeting of East and West. In 1985, Mr. Mueller looked after a Chinese delegation visiting seven universities in North America. Part of their mission was to identify a graduate program for Dr. Yu. The delegation selected the public health program at Chapel Hill as the best choice.

Mr. Mueller was walking down the hallway at the School of Public Health one morning when he noticed an unfamiliar Asian face. She called out to him. Dr. Yu spoke very little English, but the photograph she pulled from her pocket told the story. It showed Mr. Mueller and the Chinese delegation. Thus began an East-West relationship that endured until Mr. Mueller’s final days.

In 1988, the couple ended up in Washington, DC, where Mr. Mueller began a career as a science writer. In May of 1989, he traveled to China as a consultant for the National Institutes of Health and found himself in the midst of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Mr. Mueller was in the Square the night the students erected the Goddess of Democracy statue and nearby when the Chinese Army violently evicted the students and other demonstrators in early June.

After returning home, Mr. Mueller testified on Capitol Hill about what he had seen in Beijing. He led a popular local effort to build a D.C. Goddess of Democracy Statue, for which Dr. Yu served as a model. Photographs of the statue appeared in Time Magazine and on the front page of The New York Times.

Mr. Mueller and Dr. Yu married in 1989. They honeymooned in Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, they traveled widely during their years together. In the 1990s, they visited the Galapagos Islands, Argentina, England, France, Germany, and Italy.

During the 1990s, Mr. Mueller wrote Reports to Congress and articles for the National Institutes of Health. He also co-wrote a cabinet-level report to President George Bush.  

At the time of the U.S.-Iraq War, he was a Johns Hopkins University Health and Child Survival Fellow and was frequently at the U.S. State Department. He was a volunteer in the State Department’s Emergency Operations Center, where he helped keep track of missing Americans in Kuwait. Months later, President Bush and Secretary of State Baker acknowledged the workers and volunteers at a special assembly.

During his fellowship, Mr. Mueller traveled to Bangladesh, one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, to evaluate communication activities at an international research center. After completing the evaluation, he traveled to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. The side trip was brought about by an interest in Sherlock Holmes. The first Sherlock Holmes story features a murderous Andaman Islander named Tonga. Sherlockians around the world have debated the origins of Tonga for nearly 100 years.  

In the Andamans, Mr. Mueller met with members of two of the island’s vanishing tribes and dined with the curator of the anthropological museum. Those encounters, combined with research at home, enabled him to determine that Tonga had been a member of the Aka-bea Tribe. The report was published in The Baker Street Journal.  

In 1993 Mr. Mueller traveled to the Antarctic and the Falkland Islands. After the cruise, he spent several days in Rio de Janeiro. There was also a second trip to China.

Mr. Mueller often said that 1999 was the best year of his life. He spent most of it on the South Atlantic islands, residing on the Island of St. Helena for eight months and visiting Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. He is the only person known to have spent time on all three islands in a calendar year. For the record, he considered 1978--the year he backpacked across Africa--the second-best year of his life.  

St. Helena, located halfway between Africa and South America, is a former British Colony. Today it is home to 5,000 people. There is no airport; you can only get there by ship. Napoleon died in exile at St. Helena in 1821. Other famous visitors include Charles Darwin, Commodore Matthew Perry, and Sir Edmund Halley.  

Mr. Mueller resided at Cambrian House, a 200-year-old residence with a walled garden in the upper reaches of James Valley. The garden wall enclosed a towering palm tree, mango trees, and banana trees. Guava trees shaded the bedroom wing of the house. Lavender-bellied Java sparrows gathered at his kitchen window each morning.  

Mr. Mueller shared Cambrian House with various spirits that he wrote about in “A St. Helena Ghost Story”—one of many articles he contributed to the South Atlantic Chronicle.

Mr. Mueller spent three weeks on Ascension Island, located just below the equator, and two weeks on Tristan, closer to the Antarctic. Both are dependencies of St. Helena. Ascension is a top-secret American and British telecommunications hub that tracks test missiles fired from Florida.

Tristan da Cunha proved to be especially intriguing. It is home to 240 people, most of whom are descendants of seven families. Mr. Mueller stayed in an old house built from volcanic rock carved out of the mountainside. He hiked up to the top of the cliffs and visited Nightingale and Inaccessible, two neighboring islands that are part of the Tristan Group.

Some of his experiences on Tristan are reported in a monograph about the wreck of the American Schooner Emily at Tristan da Cunha in 1836. The shipwreck greatly affected the island’s history. Mr. Mueller’s monograph draws in part on insights gained during his stay on Tristan.

In January of 2000, Mr. Mueller and his wife visited Singapore and Malaysia. Later in the year, they spent a few days in Scotland, followed by a week on Madeira, a sedate North Atlantic Island that they particularly enjoyed.

In 2002, the Muellers undertook a cruise of a lifetime, courtesy of Dan Hagan. The South Pacific luxury cruise—with stops at Tonga, the Cook Islands, Bora Bora, Easter Island, and elsewhere—was a gift that grew out of 40 years of friendship between Mr. Mueller and Mr. Hagan. The cruise began in New Zealand and ended in Peru, where the couple visited Macchu Pichu, the lost kingdom in the Peruvian Andes.

Prior to the cruise, Mr. Mueller visited two Australian islands of personal interest: Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, above the tip of Queensland, and Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand.

Following years, Mr. Mueller visited several other islands of personal interest: Fernando de Noronha, a Brazilian South Atlantic island; Nias Island, off the coast of Sumatra; and Socotra, an Arabic island 200 miles east off the Horn of Africa, a possession of Yemen but geographically closer to Somalia. He also traveled to Zanzibar, off East Africa, and Mauritius and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

Generally speaking, Fayette’s most traveled man was not a joiner. He avoided most institutions and organizations. The exceptions were the St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society, which he joined in 1990, and later served as President, and The Explorers Club, which he joined as a Fellow in 1995. He was not a serious stamp collector but created many postal history items relating to his travels.

The academic-minded Mueller presented a Smithsonian lecture as part of a lecture series organized by The Explorers Club. His lecture titled “The Pygmies of Africa, Asia, and Oceania” was also given at the National Press Club and at The Cosmos Club in Washington, DC.

Mr. Mueller had a special interest in the Voyage of the Beagle and the writings of Charles Darwin, hence his trips to the Galapagos, the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, St. Helena, Ascension, and elsewhere. He co-authored an article with one of Darwin’s descendants. The purpose of the article, written with the support of the British Museum, was to raise funds for Down House, the old Darwin residence south of London.

He had a related interest in the Order Primates, which includes the tarsier, new and old world monkeys, apes, human ancestors, and human beings. The zoological Mueller visited jungle areas in Africa and South America and over 50 zoos on six continents to view primates. During his time in North Carolina, he was a volunteer at Duke University Primate Center, a haven for endangered primates of Madagascar. During his lifetime, Mr. Mueller observed more than 140 primate species.

In the 1990s, he collected postage stamps depicting monkeys and apes and wrote “Up the Monkey-Puzzle Tree: The Order Primates on Stamps,” which appeared in The American Philatelist. Mr. Mueller sold his extensive monkey stamp collection, which included original art and die proofs from 1899, 1902, and 1940, for over $10,000 in a California stamps auction and used the funds to finance his year on South Atlantic islands.

In 1996, Mr. Mueller formed a part-time business that he called The Tarsier & Traveler’s Tree. He sold books, maps, prints, postal history, and ephemera relating to many of the islands mentioned in his obituary. He also collected traditional pillows, some over 100 years old, made of wood and other materials. He disposed of most of his material possessions by 2010, preferring to focus on philosophical issues of personal interest during the remaining years of his life. The pillows—from Africa, Asia, and Oceania—were donated to Central Methodist College in Fayette and are now on display in the Stephens Museum.

Late in 2005, Mr. Mueller completed a monograph titled King Kong and The Explorers Club: Origin of the World’s Greatest Ape. An abbreviated version appeared in The Explorers Journal soon after, followed in 2007 by a presentation at the Cosmos Club in Washington with special guests from the Motion Picture Association of America.

Thirty Years of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha Philately, edited by Mr. Mueller and Dr. Peter P. McCann, appeared in 2006. Mr. Mueller wrote or co-wrote several articles for the book.

The later years of Mr. Mueller’s life were devoted to philosophical reflection and spending time with his wife. He also devoted 20 hours or so a week to helping people resolve personal problems by listening to them on park benches. “People can find solutions to many of their problems if they can just sit down with someone who will listen,” Mr. Mueller often said.

His crowning work was a monograph titled The Quantum Ping, published in 2008. Called an “intellectual tour de force” by critics worldwide, The Quantum Ping is an interweaving of established cosmological theory, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, complex mathematical theory, and highly sophisticated evolutionary psychology. Its primary achievement is a theory of the origin of structure that lays the foundation for a credible Theory of Everything. It merges philosophy, cosmology, mathematics, and the structure of human thought.

Part 2 (2016-2023) by Margaret Mattson and Mueller Family

Although during the final years of Mr. Mueller’s life he faced challenging health issues, he remained active and vibrant.  As a medical science writer, he participated in clinical trials of a promising anti-cancer drug and helped edit many scientific papers for publication. He also helped in the dissemination of the results of the studies in national and international presentations. He remained optimistic in the face of challenges and uncertainties.

At home and during his travels, Mr. Mueller was always interested in meeting new people, hearing their stories and marking the new friendship with photos of himself surrounded with people from around the world, with everyone smiling.  One can truly say that he had friends around the world, keeping in touch with them through email and Facebook.

Time spent with wife, Jing Jie Yu was his greatest pleasure; adventurous and distant trips with her was the pride and joy of his life. His reflections on life, both practical and philosophic, was shared with many.

Indeed, Mike never lost his desire to visit remote Islands or exotic and interesting countries. In late 2019, he spent several weeks visiting Analalava in Madagascar, Cocos Island, the Mascarene Islands, as well as other islands in the Indian Ocean. In his last months, accompanied by his wife, he visited London, England where he viewed the celebrations of the coronation of King Charles III; Beijing, China where he met with professors and doctors discussing the chemo drug projects; and Bali, Indonesia, one of the South Pacific islands. Mike’s yearning to explore new destinations will carry on in the beyond. Of that, we are sure!  

Although family and friends and all those who knew and loved Mike will feel the intense loss of his passing, his spirit, kindness and example of a well lived life will never fade from our hearts and memories.

Our dearest husband, stepfather, grandfather Mike shall be missed dearly by his wife Jing, all his family members and friends.  

Safe travels Mike! Loving you forever!