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Archive for Monday, July 1, 2013

‘Black Jack’ composer leaves legacy of bringing people closer

July 1, 2013

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Don Mueller wasn’t just a creator of plays and music — he created relationships.

“He was good at building friendships with people and between people,” said Steve Absher, a former student of Mueller’s at Baker University. “You became close friends with other people through him by being involved in drama and music.”

Mueller, a Baldwin City resident who was best known for writing the historical musical “The Ballad of Black Jack,” died June 24 at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. He was 87.

Mueller was a playwright, composer and lyricist, and for 14 years was a professor at Baker. He also was an ordained United Methodist minister.

While teaching, he also directed the drama troupes Baker pLaymen and pLaity.

“The Ballad of Black Jack,” which was set in Douglas County in the Bleeding Kansas era of the 1850s, was first performed in 1970 at the Maple Leaf Festival in Baldwin City. Initially intended to be a one-time performance to celebrate Baldwin City’s centennial, the play was met with such popular acclaim that it became an annual event for more than a decade.

In 1979, Mueller encouraged Lawrence resident Bob Newton to audition for the play after Newton expressed an interest in the production.

“He was always on the lookout for talent,” Newton said. “If he ran across a good singer somewhere he’d recruit them on the spot to be one of his singers ... If there wasn’t an open part he would write them in.”

Newton said Mueller had a magnetic personality, and if he got a person involved in the arts it was a lasting commitment. Some of the performers who participated in “The Ballad of Black Jack” when it was performed at the Maple Leaf Festival, through 1983, reunited for a show in Lawrence in 1986. The play returned to Baldwin City in 2001-2005. It most recently was performed at the Lawrence Arts Center in 2006 and 2007 as part of the “Civil War on the Western Frontier” series of events.

Absher said part of the reason Mueller’s actors and musicians stuck with him was because Mueller used his talents to lift the spirits and faith of people. He tried to build confidence in others and help them to discover talent they didn’t know they had.

“I graduated 30 years ago and still stayed friends with him,” Absher said. “A lot of people from the college and the community stayed in touch with him.”

After retiring from teaching in 1983, Mueller continued participating in local plays and concerts, many times with former students and performers from pLaity and the “The Ballad of Black Jack.”

“One of the things he was worried about was people would just separate and go their own way,” Absher said. “He wanted everyone to get together to share their times and memories from the music and drama in order to keep their friendships going.”

To allow Mueller’s friends and family to share those memories, there will be a celebration of Mueller’s life from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. July 21 at The Lodge, at 502 Ames St., in Baldwin City. Memorials are requested to the Easter Seals Capper Foundation, at 3500 SW 10th Ave., Topeka, KS 66604.

A complete obituary for Don Mueller appeared in the June 28 edition of the Lawrence Journal-World and may be found online at LJWorld.com.

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