MaryBeth Mueller’s tenure as a leader in Catholic education is coming to a close, but her passion that fueled decades of leadership resulting in national recognition remains undimmed.The superintendent and director of the diocesan Division of Education and Evangelization is retiring next month, following 31 years of service.

Mueller grabbed the attention of dioceses across America when, in 1998, her office launched a capital campaign — Today’s Children, Tomorrow’s Leaders — that raised $33 million for school renovation, expansion and construction of Catholic schools.

“We were the only diocese in the United States that attempted to do that just for schools,” Mueller recalled. “I look back and I don’t know how we did it. We did well.”

The farm girl from Walhalla, North Dakota, has never shied away from hard work.

The oldest of four, she drove the tractor during the potato and grain harvest, taught religious education to second-graders as a high school sophomore and earned a blue ribbon for her sewing skills at the county fair.

“My work ethic comes from my folks. I think that’s the spirit of farming, you have to do whatever it takes to get the job done,” Mueller said. “You don’t say no. You figure out how to do it.”

Mueller cultivated that “can-do” attitude as a constant and tireless advocate and witness to Catholic education for more than 44 years, serving as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, director of curriculum and personnel, and associate superintendent for schools in the dioceses of Duluth, Minnesota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Phoenix.

“She has always worked without ceasing to help as many children who desire a Catholic school have that opportunity,” said Anne Wuycheck, two-term Diocesan School Board past president, who has worked with Mueller since 2000 on a number of projects.

“Her absolute love and desire to help every single child is contagious.”

In her bid to help families afford a Catholic education, Mueller launched Night of Hope in 2008.

The annual dinner builds support for the nearly 14,000 students enrolled in diocesan schools, with 50 percent of funds raised going directly for tuition assistance. The other half goes into a $4 million endowment fund for the future.

Mueller said she counts that among her career highlights, along with increasing teacher compensation, school accreditation and improvement processes and the partnerships with Virginia G. Piper Trust and Shea Homes.

“I can’t take credit for all this,” Mueller said, adding, “These are things that happened during the years and it’s people who believe in children and what they want to see happen for them.”

“My work ethic comes from my folks. I think that’s the spirit of farming, you have to do whatever it takes to get the job done,” Mueller said. “You don’t say no. You figure out how to do it.”

Colleagues have noted her gift to see the big picture, which has been paramount in her work in furthering education and evangelization.

Her former Seton Catholic Preparatory student Fr. Chris Fraser, judicial vicar for the diocese, said when it comes to a project initiative or issue, Mueller is naturally perceptive.

He said she has an understanding of the common good, a solid sense of what should be envisioned and the capacity to let others take on a project.

“MaryBeth is a person of absolute integrity,” Fr. Fraser said. “She’s realistic and honest but at the same time, she’ll throw her hat in the ring … and find a way to make it work.”

Although difficult, life on the farm was good and Mueller joined friends in 4-H club, crafted and looked after her siblings.

In high school her mother, an office manager, “insisted” she take home economics. At graduation she received the “Betty Crocker” award in recognition of her projects.

It’s apropos she’s currently working on a cross stitch project first begun by her mother titled, “Footprints in the Sand.”

After all, Mueller has been guided and directed by her faith in her work from the very beginning.

“She works with faith and diligence to make the most of every opportunity in hopes that it will positively effect change within our diocese and especially within our schools,” Wuycheck said.

Mueller left the farm after high school for more cold weather in Duluth, where she earned her bachelor’s degree from the College of St. Scholastica, and later a master’s degree in education and a specialist certificate in educational administration from the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Her husband, Bill, a behavioral health counselor at Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale, said her “unfailing morning and evening devotions and prayers” have sustained her “hectic life” that begins at 4:30 a.m.

“She loves the children and deeply admires and respects the school and the department personnel who are so dedicated to their vocations,” he said.

Sr. Joan Fitzgerald, IBVM, president of Xavier College Preparatory, has known Mueller her whole career.

The one-time member and president of the Diocesan School Board described Mueller as a “grounded leader with vision.”

“She never lost the basics, but she was never afraid of innovation,” Sr. Joan said, noting that through it all, “we were always Catholic.”

MaryBeth Mueller and Sr. Mary Jordan Hoover, OP, share a laugh at the ground blessing for St. John Paul II Catholic High School on April 5, 2016, in Avondale. The new Catholic high school will open in August 2018. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

Mueller, the mother of two adult children and one baby in heaven is also a grandmother, she led the effort to bring Catholic secondary education to the West Valley with the scheduled 2018 opening of St. John Paul II Catholic High School.

During her tenure, seven new elementary schools and one, soon to be two, high schools have opened.

Mueller also joined efforts to bring the University of Mary, Benedictine University, the College of St. Scholastica and Franciscan University to the Valley, giving students the first opportunity to continue their Catholic education beyond high school in Arizona.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said her legacy will bear fruit for years to come. He credits her for ensuring Catholic schools in the diocese maintain a strong Catholic identity.

“They are true communities of faith where education in the things of both the heart and the mind takes place in an integrated and wholesome way. The dignity of each young person as being made in the image of God is affirmed through the joint efforts of parents, teachers, administrators and students,” Bishop Olmsted said. “All this is due in no small part to the strong and faith-filled leadership of MaryBeth Mueller over the course of more than 30 years.

“Words cannot adequately express my deep gratitude to God for MaryBeth and her deep commitment and total gift of self for the good of all our children and youth.”

“Our job is to form disciples in our faith so we have to integrate our Catholic faith in all that we do.”

Mueller, who has received numerous local and national awards for leadership, said Catholic education in Arizona will continue to flourish with the hiring of educators and administrators who “understand and believe in the mission of what it takes to make our schools stronger.”

“My attitude is we have a more important job to do than just academic education,” she said. “Our job is to form disciples in our faith so we have to integrate our Catholic faith in all that we do. It’s not a 9 to 5 job — it’s 24/7.”

Her comment echoes her Midwest upbringing where her family sacrificed vacations for crops.

Mueller still owns a piece of the land once farmed by her family, but she and Bill, married 43 years in June, are looking forward to spending time together by the water.

They’re headed to their property in Minnesota on Lake George where Mueller said she’ll fish from their boat or the shore after baiting her hook, “but I won’t clean it. That’s Bill’s job.”

Ambria Hammel contributed to this article.