ST. PETERSBURG — Before Bert Muller took the helm of PARC, the Tampa Bay area had little to offer its retarded children. Parents worked double time trying to provide care while running a household and working. Eventually they enrolled their children in a state-run institution.
Over 30 years, Mr. Muller took the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children from serving 10 children in 1962 to 600 in 1992, with quantum leaps in services.
He built classrooms and activities space for children others had forgotten and raised millions for PARC and related causes.
Audiences sensed his passion, especially when they learned about Mr. Muller's personal connection to challenges facing the developmentally disabled: his first child.
Mr. Muller died Monday at 83. He retired in 1993 after three decades as president of PARC. He is credited with shaping the greatly expanded nonprofit organization PARC is today.
"He had a way of making everyone his friend, and as his friend you bought into whatever he was selling," said Tino Mastry, chairman of PARC's board of directors. "He made you feel that what you were doing was extremely important."
At the group's headquarters at 3100 75th St. N, Mr. Muller oversaw a budget of $10 million and a staff of about 350 employees and 500 or more volunteers, as well as the PARC campus, which serves at least 700 children and adults in South Pinellas.
A native of Jersey City, N.J., Mr. Muller was a graduate of Columbia University, the University of Florida and Notre Dame and had served in the Navy. His early career paths turned out to be much different from the one he chose.
At 21, he opened a dry cleaning business on money borrowed from his mother. Thieves took all of the clothes six weeks later. He had no insurance.
Mr. Muller came to St. Petersburg in the early 1950s, and started a real estate and insurance business. He dated, but didn't get serious until he met Jean Sebacher, whom he married in 1957. Their lives changed with the birth of their daughter, Leslie.
They enrolled her in the Peter Pan School for Retarded Children. Mr. Muller left his business for a year to volunteer at the school. Such a preschool was rare, and it was far from enough, Mr. Muller realized. Mr. Muller and five other parents formed the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children.
After raising money to buy 10 acres from the city of St. Petersburg, Mr. Muller assumed leadership of PARC.
"I gave up an extremely profitable business, but I have no regrets," Mr. Muller would say years later. "Very few men can say they've done exactly what they want, but I can."
He wasted no time securing funding for the nonprofit organization, which he envisioned as a place where retarded children could receive expert help in mapping out their lives. He met President John F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C., and was later visited at PARC by JFK's mother, Rose Kennedy.
Mr. Muller took care of his regular donors, rich or poor. "Every holiday we had someone at our table who wasn't with our family, because they had been good to PARC," said daughter Michelle Detweiler.
A personal high point came in 1979 with the opening of PARC Center Apartments, 46 bedrooms for residents 18 and older. One of the first residents was Leslie Muller, who had been staying in a state-run facility.
In addition to his work with PARC, Mr. Muller ran for County Commission in 1976 but lost. Four years later he was appointed to the State Ethics Commission.
Mr. Muller moved to Bradenton and became executive director of the R' Club, which provides before- and after-school programs. He was a past president of the Florida Association for Retarded Children and was a member of the Pinellas County Republican Club.
"He was basically a voice for people with disabilities," said Detweiler, 44. "You didn't have to hide your children in the closet because they had developmental disabilities. These were people just like you or me."
"He challenged tradition," said Mastry. "And in that challenge emerged the PARC as it is today."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]