Mary Mueller is a Certified Religious Educator and Youth Minister at St. John Vianney, former Religious Education Director at St. John Vianney, and she and her husband, Larry, are Rock County Foster Parents.
“People don’t want to see the big picture. We need to look outside of ourselves and help our neighbor.” ~ Mary Mueller
Mary, tell me about your family and growing up.
I was born in Monroe County, the oldest of six, three sisters and two brothers. We lived on a farm called The Welcome Way. We had registered Holsteins and were very proud of that. I was a country girl, through and through!
What were some of your chores?
I liked the morning shift. I got up and milked cows. We worked hard together. We were a family that prayed together, stayed together, and did everything together. That was Dad and Mom’s pride, and we were a part of that.
What activities were you involved in in high school?
In high school I played saxophone in band, I was in choir, played piano, and participated in musicals. For sports, I was in softball, did the stats for men’s track and was a wrestling cheerleader. My brothers were wrestlers, football players and track runners.
4-H was also a big part of my life, I was very active, did sewing, cooking and 4-H softball. Our family was a big part of that softball team because we were all a year apart and there were six of us!
Were you involved in your church then?
Yes, I started to play organ at mass from the time when I was a freshman in high school. I worked in liturgy.
What happened after high school?
After high school, I worked at St. Joseph’s hospital in Hillsboro, Wisconsin as a nurse’s aide. They gave me an offer to go to school to become an RN. That’s about when I met my future husband.
How did you meet Larry?
The families knew each other, the Muellers and the Conners, and when I would drive, we’d call up the Muellers to see if they’d want to ride along to school functions. We’d stop by and pick up his younger siblings.
Then one day, when I was in high school, Larry’s sister said, “That’s my brother Lawrence.” And I asked, “Who’s Lawrence?” because Larry is from a family of 14! He was standing on the steps and caught my eye. Then I said, “Well … you just say hi to Lawrence!”
Years later, my mom and dad took my grandparents to Chicago for a trip and wanted to make sure that if there were any mechanical problems on the farm while we kids were doing chores, that we would call Larry’s dad. Larry happened to be home and they said, “Would Lawrence mind checking in if there would be any problem?” His family always called him Lawrence.
At the time, I was a senior in high school. Larry said that he would stop by, and I happened to be cooking a big supper for everybody. That was probably the first time we started.
And then, years later, after I graduated, I wrote a letter to him. Larry will say this is how we got going. He said, “I don’t want any cobwebs in the mailbox,” which was a saying back then. So, I wrote him eight cards at Thanksgiving time! I added a “p.s. No cobwebs in the mailbox.” That gave Larry permission, and he wrote back. Then he asked me out! Our first date was February 23rd and were married July 17th!
Mary’s husband, Larry, joins the interview.
Larry: Pretty fast! But we had known each other through our families.
Mary: It will be 42 years this July! He is still my best friend. Larry would write to me, “I love you as you are, for what you are, for who you are, for what we can become together.” Our daughter, Anna, used that at her wedding.
I’m younger than Larry and we had talked about the other end of our life. And now, look, he’s the one taking care of me! He’s so wonderful to me, he’s so gracious and so good.
Larry is like my sacrament, we are so blessed and God is the center of what we do. We go through hard times, but we always know we have each other. Through all the valleys and hardships, we rediscover each other.
When did you come to Rock County?
Larry brought me here in 1977 with his job at General Motors. I call him “my rock”, so it’s funny I came to Rock County for my rock. We lived on Bond Place, renting there, then we bought our house that following January. We’ve been here since.
How did you first become foster parents?
One of Larry’s brothers had a bad back. They had two children and I was helping to care for them quite a bit. Bob and Mary Bennett lived behind us, and they were foster parents. They asked, “Why don’t you think about becoming foster parents?” We decided to do it.
What was that first fostering experience like?
Wonderful! Our first child was a boy with cerebral palsy named Jeremy. They told us he would need to be on a lot of medication. I was able to get him off of medication, and he didn’t have the seizures. I loved physical therapy and did a lot of physical therapy with him. Larry would do a military cadence call with him. It made him giggle. He was about nine or 10 months old.
One time, I had him lie down and Larry started the cadence call from the other room. And Jeremy started to do it himself! He walked for the first time! We proved then that he could hear and see. They told us he’d be a vegetable, and yet we proved he was so capable! We helped to place him with a couple in Cottage Grove, WI.
We saved all sorts of money, started a savings account, and then sent money with him because we knew some day he’d have to have a wheelchair.
How many children have you fostered over the years?
They told us that we’ve fostered between 50 and 75, but I can hardly believe that! I just know we’ve had a lot. We’ve loved them all.
When we started foster parenting, we had to go to meetings. At one meeting, there was a story about a young man who took his life. And part of the reason he took his life was that a teacher had given an assignment that the students had to write their life story starting at the beginning. He said, “I’m a foster child. I can’t start at the beginning.” This teacher failed him because he could not start his story at the beginning.
I wanted to help solve this problem and give them “a beginning.” I would write a journal when we got the children. If we took in a newborn, and we had a handful of them, we’d name the new baby and we would give them a beginning. Larry made a little homemade scale out of a laundry basket so that we could periodically weigh the babies and keep a record for them.
When you’re in foster care, you take on three in one; an infant, that mother and that dad. We were trying to reunite them. We always kept our door open to the parents. But, the caseworkers were good to us and let Larry and I have a lot of say, because sometimes we had to say, “No, it isn’t healthy to send him back.”
How old was the oldest child you took in?
I’d say about 15 or 16, a child who was disabled. That was hard for me. Larry could handle that one easier. I cried a lot about it. The child would not eat if I didn’t eat.
The biological parents expected me to “fix things” but I wasn’t able to and recognized my limitations. I never thought there would be a child I couldn’t take care of! It was hard, but Larry was so strong. Together we are a good team. He is so wonderful! He is so very good to me.
Tell me about your adoptions.
We ended up first adopting three of them, the children from India. We were told they were ages 2, 4 and 6, but they were 2, 6 and 10! They were siblings, and they wanted to separate them. We went back and insisted that they wouldn’t separate them! They were a sibling family. Our oldest daughter, Sudha, really mothered the other two. They stayed with us all those years and graduated from Craig High School.
One time, a teacher at school wanted Sudha to head a minority group. She came home upset and didn’t want to take on the role because she didn’t really understand what that was all about. I had to explain to her that she was a minority.
The three were first considered foster children. Then when we wanted to adopt them, they put us on hold as foster parents for about two years, because the federal and state government didn’t want the adopted children to think that they were going in and out.
Eventually, they came back to us and asked if we’d be open to being foster parents again. By then, we asked the children if they would be okay with this decision, even as young as they were. We wanted them to be a part of the decision making.
Every time we adopted, it became a family decision. We sat at the table for a meeting and asked the three older children. Larry would take a pie as a symbol and say, “Now, if we had a pie, and we have to cut this amount of pieces, that means everybody would get a smaller piece.” Everyone would get to say how they felt.
Kurt and Kelly came as the next set. They came as foster children, but then we adopted them in 1983. They were just a few years apart from the older three. Then Casey came to us, and they were all excited to have a new baby.
If you were to give advice to others interested in being foster parents, what would it be?
If you want to receive an instant reward of self-worth and of truly helping another, foster care would be that way. It is a rewarding and whole experience that makes you realize you can make a difference in a family’s life.
You have to build trust with the children. Some of these children don’t know what trust is. One little boy we took in had been neglected when his mother walked out and left him alone. He was so afraid, once, when I needed to go to the store. I said, “I’ll be right back.” The little boy replied, “That’s what Mom said.”
So, Larry made me promise to be back in 45 minutes. He set the kitchen timer for the little boy and told me not to visit with people I might run into, so that I could get back on time. And I made it. But, we had to prove to the boy we weren’t going to abandon him. The child has to learn trust.
You also have to have patience with children.
Larry: You really have to have an open heart. We started out without having raised our own. But, we each came from large families, so we were used to helping raise our siblings. And you must be patient.
Mary: You have to realize you will be hurt, as well. You have to have meat in the game.
When did your biological daughter come along?
I had been told that we could never had a child, and we just accepted that. Then, in 1990, at Thanksgiving time, I was sick. For 10-and-a-half hours I threw up every 30 minutes! We had been to a large family gathering at my folks’ and thought perhaps I had eaten something bad. Some of the children had been sick, too, so then we thought maybe it was the flu.
I finally told Larry, “Something just not right.” Larry wanted me to go to the doctor. The doctor wanted to run a pregnancy test and I laughed! They had done the bloodwork, and I was at a conference when they called with a message to call them back.
When I got the clinic on the phone, they excitedly told me, “You’re pregnant!” I said, “No, this is Mary Mueller” thinking they had the wrong person. I was just in shock! Then I had to finish the conference and couldn’t tell anyone because I needed to tell Larry first.
I went home and he was napping, due to the shift he was working. I woke him up, “Sweetheart, I have to tell you something. You’re going to be a dad!” He said, “I AM a dad.” I said, “No, you’re going to be a dad the old-fashioned way!” We thanked God over and over, then had to call all the extended family, who also couldn’t believe it!
Larry told the kids. Casey said, “Dad, you said Mom couldn’t do this!” We helped them realize it was a gift from God. Casey was determined it had to be a girl to keep up the pattern of boy, girl, boy, girl.
All of the children went and bought a dozen roses for us and for Baby Anna. We took a bed sheet and used puffy paints so they could all write messages to her, “We love you, Baby.” And “You are my baby”. It was very sweet.
One time, Anna’s cousin told her that she was different from her siblings. She was very hurt by the comment. She said, “Mom, you told us we’re all the same!” So, all of her siblings came up with the idea to hold a ceremony at the grandparents’ farm around a bonfire, and her brothers and sisters had to “adopt” her. So, Anna was “adopted” into the family by the siblings.
Anna recently married and is a teacher at a Catholic school. She helps with Youth Group and Bible Studies. She and her husband are very involved in church ministries.
How did you and Larry become involved in Religious Education and Youth Ministry?
We moved here in January of 1977. I started teaching Religious Education at St. Williams. Sister Coke knew my aunt who was a sister in Racine. And they knew that I played the organ, so played at St. Williams whenever they needed help.
Father Schmelzer knew my home priest, the one who married us. So, I started to play the organ at St. John Vianney at 8 in the evening and at 7:30 in the morning. I also sang and performed for a lot of weddings at SJV. Then I began to teach as the “Master Teacher” of eighth grade Religious Education.
I was asked to go to Edgewood on a weekend degree program. So, for two-and-a-half years, I went there and became certified as a Religious Educator and Youth Minister. Around that time, I began assisting in the Youth Group under Nancy Gruenloh Jones. She became ill and I was asked to help.
At the time, I was raising a family, so I asked if my children could be a part of it. And that’s how it got started. It’s the longest Youth Group in the diocese of Madison! I still get phone calls with questions and advice on running youth groups.
We are happy to still teach the ninth and 10th grade students.
How many grades have you taught?
I’ve taught so many grades, including some first graders who are now in their late 20s! I remember a first-grade lesson where at Thanksgiving, the children were making a placemat of their family. I was talking about how God loves you and God makes all of us.
One of the children asked, “Do you have children who are a different color?” I said, “I do!” and I showed them a photo of me and my family. We took the globe and I showed them where they were from in the world.
Then, the children proceeded to draw their families in all different colors! Some of the kids colored the mom a different color than the dad. Sister sent home a cover letter explaining the lesson to the parents! This was the lesson seen through the eyes of children.
I’ve taught mostly middle and high schoolers and was in charge of anything that went out of the Religious Ed office dogmatically. I have written the Eighth Grade Retreats, and still get advice on that.
Larry, when did you get involved in working at St. John Vianney and Religious Education?
Larry: After I retired in 2006, and being a parent of kids in Religious Education, I used to volunteer. I just got involved. It’s going on 12 years of being there after I retired. I’m like the “Maintenance Man” at St. John Vianney, but I do anything they want, Fall Fest, Christmas, etc.
Mary: Once, back in the 80s, Sister Mary was moving to New York, and where she was going, the kids wouldn’t have pencil and paper. So, Larry made 50 chalkboards for her! One thing about Larry is that if someone asks him to do something, and he doesn’t know how to do it, he’ll go to the library and will learn how. He will find a way! He tries to say he’s getting older, but I won’t let him get old.
Tell me about some of the community outreach you’ve been involved in.
Over the years, we have reached out to ECHO, House of Mercy, we’ve taken the Youth Group to St. Elizabeth’s and other places in town. I helped with getting the Giving Tree off the ground and we went all over the community with that. The Youth Group would deliver to poor children throughout the school district. We would get names, find what was needed and distribute the gifts at holiday time.
Matt Prestil was instrumental in organizing the G.I.F.T.S. Men Shelter with Fr. Randy Timmerman, and all of us on staff had to be a part of that. It was my job to think of where the children were at all times in the church to help with the logistics of the shelter.
What changes have you seen over the years in our community?
When we first came here, we became very aware of the need for foster parents in our community. Sadly, I think people don’t want to see the need in our community. There are so many homeless children in need. People put on their blinders and don’t want to see the real truth.
We organized the first Breakfast Club for serving the children at public schools. Some people wanted to only serve Roosevelt School, but I said, “No, Roosevelt doesn’t need us. Van Buren needs us. Wilson needs us! We need to go not where they have, but where they have not.” I fought hard for that, even went down to the school district. I told them I wanted truth and facts and stood my ground.
I love that we help Texas and Florida when they have hurricanes, but we have to also see that we have homeless with needs right here! And we need to reach out. We need to raise money for the homeless shelters. At House of Mercy they’ll only keep a family for a month or so and then they’re out the door. Though you’re trying to help them get jobs, sometimes a month isn’t long enough.
That’s why I believe in the Giving Tree. It is a Christmas tree filled with coded tags of ‘wishes’ for the needy in the community. Our church parishioners can choose tags off the tree, purchase gifts and place them under the tree for delivery.
One of the years I walked into a house delivering gifts, and this house had only one light because they could only afford one light bulb. I knew the family; the daughter was very involved in school and she was embarrassed that I now knew how poor they were. I gave her my word that this would be kept confidential. It broke my heart.
Why do you feel it’s important to involve the children in giving?
When Anna was little, we went to deliver some bunk beds to a poor Hispanic family who had no beds, and she came along for the delivery. There was a little girl in the home, about Anna’s same age. The girl started to talk to her mother in Spanish. Then, the mother explained to us that the little girl wanted to give Anna something. We tried to refuse, and Anna said, “You don’t have to give me anything … I could just be your friend.”
But the mother said she really wanted to, and the girl gave Anna a little stuffed koala. It was all she had! Anna still has that after all these years.
The children need to see what they can be grateful for.
But, that’s what frustrates me. People don’t want to see the big picture, we need to look outside of ourselves and help our neighbor.
What is it about Rock County that you love?
Rock County is a friendly place, we are an intelligent people. What I like about it is that it’s home.
Some of our children have had special needs and Rock County has been there for us! Community Support System has helped us a great deal. Aging and Disability Resource Center has been there for us. In our legal system, Dan Dillon and Mike Hackinson have been so supportive. Mike is so good. Bill Vogt and Brennen Steil have been very helpful … we are so blessed!
We plan to stay. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else! You want to leave a community better than when you found it. I love this community, and if I can help, and be a part of making it better, I will.