Kurt Mueller (BS ’74) paid a visit to his hometown of Tulsa earlier this year to honor Frank Manning, A. Paul Buthod Professor of Chemical Engineering, with a gift to TU. Manning has devoted the past 50 years of his career to engineering education and is well-loved among current students and alumni including Mueller. In 1972, Mueller was a young Vietnam veteran with a wife and baby on the way, and he needed to finish his degree as soon as possible. Manning, as the Chair of the Chemical Engineering Dept., helped Mueller obtain a scholarship and then a job. Mueller said he’ll never forget Manning’s kindness and easy-going attitude.
“He allowed me to take practical classes I could use like finance and accounting,” he said. “The goal was to get a job as quickly as I could.”
A few years earlier, Mueller had studied architecture at Oklahoma State University before transferring to TU and majoring in chemical engineering. But in 1968, he grew tired of school and work while watching news reports of one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive.
“Seeing what was going on with our soldiers over there, I thought I’m quitting and going into the service,” Mueller said. “My dad (a Pearl Harbor survivor) teared up when I told him, because he knew exactly what I was facing. You feel invincible at 22 years old.”
As a helicopter pilot with two U.S. Army air cavalry units in Vietnam, his unit’s mission was to seek out the enemy and gather intelligence. He had only been in country 25 days when his best friend was killed in action. He was assigned to escort his friend’s body back to the states, one of the worst experiences Mueller had in the Army. From flight to flight on the journey home, he witnessed the disrespect that many showed to the soldier’s remains.
“There was no support, whatsoever,” Mueller said. “It was such an unpopular war you had to compartmentalize the experience, put it away and stay focused.”
He returned to Vietnam for a year of service in country and spent four years total on active duty as a commissioned officer. Mueller was determined to pick back up where he had left off at TU, but this time around he was attending as a veteran. When he began to apply for jobs, he was advised to not disclose that important detail.
“No one knew about it, and no one talked about it,” he said. “We were told whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you were in the war, and especially in combat.”
Mueller said Manning was instrumental in helping him get a job as a design engineer at C-E Natco in Tulsa. He advanced quickly within the company and left four years later for a position at Georg Fischer Corporation. Mueller’s other career ventures included running a Miller Beer distributorship as well as management positions at Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream, Crystal Springs Bottled Water Co., Skanska USA and Gilbane Building Co.
Now retired, the Georgia resident has reconnected with the men he flew with in Vietnam while joining the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association and the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. He volunteers with the United Service Organizations (USO) and has served on the Small Business Administration Advisory Committee on Veterans Business Affairs in Washington, DC.
“The involvement in this committee led me to look at legislative policies that affect the veteran business community,” Mueller said.
Hire Heroes USA is another one of the many veteran organizations to which he gives of his time. Through Hire Heroes USA, Mueller supports men and women transitioning from the military to school or to find a job after service with activities such as résumé writing and conducting mock job interviews. Mueller said his drive to mentor and coach fellow veterans is rooted in the memories he carries as a veteran transitioning back to civilian life.
“It’s entirely different today than when I was in school,” he said. “It’s about giving back to the veteran community any way we can.”
His support for veterans also involves honoring those of his era who missed out on the chance to be recognized for their devotion and discipline. Mueller said student-veterans are valuable to any college campus including TU where new programs have been developed to welcome their unique life experiences.
“They’ve got a purpose and a focus,” he said “They have the support nowadays that none of us from the Vietnam era had.”