by Greg Smith
Last week, I learned of the passing of a man who was instrumental in my development as a youth. For 34 years as a special education teacher at Downers Grove South High School in suburban Chicago, this man played the same role in hundreds of lives.
Remembering “Mr. M,” Bill Muelhauser, brings back fond appreciative thoughts about my introduction to the disability community. I had just become a wheelchair user after back surgery and beginning high school. I thought you might enjoy these memories about “Mr. M” and the impact he had on me:
Reflections on the environment Mr. M created for special ed students at Downers Grove South
When my “short bus” arrived at South High School, it pulled right up to the front of the building. Sometimes we arrived at the exact same time as two or three other “short buses” so we jockeyed for position to unload under the covered shelter of the awning in front of the school.
After getting off the bus, I propelled the manual chair by putting my right foot over my left foot. After about 20 repetitions of this motion on the slick tile floor inside Downers South’s main lobby, I moved down the hall to the right and entered the starting point of my day for the next four years, the “crip room.” That’s what we called the special education classroom.
Actually, there were two “crip rooms.” The main room was about the size of three standard classrooms, but still nowhere near big enough for the 30 or so disabled kids. Many of us were in wheelchairs and many lacked speed or agility, or the ability to perceive depth and space enough to know that they were always causing traffic jams. I learned quickly that if I wanted to be on time for a class, I had to plan my route so I that wouldn’t get stuck in the middle.
The “crip room” featured a complete kitchen with oven, dishwasher sink and refrigerator to teach the kids independent living skills. Bill Muelhauser ran it, but I didn’t learn his real last name until weeks after the start of school because he introduced himself to us at orientation as “Mr. M.” Tall, with a big mustache and a friendly laugh, he was a comforting part of my accepting that I would be attending South instead of the school my neighborhood kids attended, Downers Grove North.
Mr. M was the captain of “the crip ship.” Looking back, I’d say it was quite impressive to consider that Mr. M and his staff took on the responsibility of receiving kids with disabilities from all over the western suburbs and giving them the most integrated a school setting possible.
In addition to managing the special education department, he taught classes to special needs kids and supervised his staff. Mrs. Bretl, AKA “Mrs. B,” and Miss Brown were the other two teachers in the special ed class. There were four paid staff assistants as well as several students who worked as volunteers.
The “crip room” was a place where those of us who were integrated in mainstream classrooms could get the physical help we needed, like removing jackets, gathering books for our next class, or getting some assistance with using the bathroom. We all had lockers for our coats, but unlike the non-disabled students, we kept our books in little plastic shelves with our names on them, for easy access.
The “crip room” was like a headquarters for the disabled students. We could eat lunch there if we wanted to, but as a freshman, I would shudder to think of doing such a thing! I ate my lunches in the main cafeteria, determined to fit in and be as “normal” as possible.
Soon, the daily routine developed. “Mr. M,” Miss Brown, or “Mrs. B” – simple names for the kids with cognitive disabilities to learn and remember – or one of the staff or student assistants helped me remove my coat. I then wheeled myself over to my chest level, orange plastic shelf to get the books for my first class and place them next to me in my chair. Then I was out of there.
As the year progressed, I started to enjoy beginning my days in the “crip room.” As I removed my coat and assembled my materials for class, I engaged in Monday-morning quarterbacking with kids who had severe cognitive disabilities but who knew sports statistics like computers. We would more often than not be discussing a bonehead decision by Bears quarterback, Bob Avelini the day before, or a beautiful Walter Payton dash from scrimmage. This was a very opinionated group of sports fans!
I remember a class vacation we took to Clearwater, Florida and Disney World. In Clearwater, Mr. M did an awesome thing for me. I was flirting with a high-school-aged waitress at our diner. She gave me her number and we agreed to meet later that evening, but the class had other activities planned. Mr. M was cool enough to allow me to skip the plans and have dinner with her. Without her knowledge, he chaperoned from a table across the room!
Through “Mr. M’s” leadership, high school was an incredible introduction to some of what would become defining elements of my life. The “crip room” was a new introduction to disability; a familiarity with the diversity and goodness of people, and an understanding that my cognitive abilities made me no better a human being than those who were both mentally and physically disabled.
That year was also one of reward for initiative. I expressed a desire to become involved in marching band and radio, and both of those doors opened to me. Those three experiences, profound foundations of who I would become in life, share the same roots, 1978-1982, my time at Downers Grove South High School.
These are just one student’s reflections. Hundreds of similar stories could be told about the incredible work Bill Muelhauser did in his career. Goodbye, “Mr. M.” You were a great man, appreciated and loved by many.
A memorial visitation will be Saturday October 11, 2014 from 10am until time of services 11:30am at Toon Funeral Home 4920 Main Street Downers Grove IL.