by Anne Batty
Seventeen years ago a husband’s job transfer brought Rita Mueller and her family to South Orange County, CA. As they exited the plane, Rita remembered the stewardess saying, “Welcome to God’s country.”
It may have been God’s country to the natives. But after living in the Midwest all their lives, the flamingo pink houses, surrounding walls and neighbors who had little time for conversation, seemed more of a culture shock than a little bit of heaven to the migrating family. So after six months spent as a stranger in a strange town, Mueller became bored and began looking around for something to do.
While scanning the Pennysaver an ad for a San Clemente City Hall receptionist caught Rita’s eye, and at the 12th hour she sent in her application for the job. She soon received a call to begin employment with the City.
In the beginning Mueller job shared morning and afternoon shifts with another applicant. When that applicant left, Rita took over both part-time shifts. As the City grew and needs became greater she eventually became the full-time receptionist.
As the first impression people visiting City Hall receive of San Clemente, a receptionist’s job calls for a friendly, multi-faceted, multi-tasking, informed, think-on-your-feet personality ... a front person, at the head of the action. Much more than just a pretty face, the perky, blonde, blue-eyed, personable Mueller certainly fit that bill.
“The job was extremely difficult at first,” Rita revealed. “Being a total stranger to the town, there was so much to learn and I had to learn it fast, because I had to know how things worked in order to answer questions and direct people to the right departments.”
Anything but, “just a receptionist,” Mueller’s responsibilities at City Hall encompassed many jack-of-all-trades tasks and much diplomacy; listening to lonely elders, handling irate customers, directing lost out-of-towners and being the calm in the midst of whatever storm the City found itself in.
Surprisingly, the job didn’t come without its risks. Relating a particularly harrowing experience, Rita tells of a day sitting at her desk looking outside and seeing a man walking across the parking lot towards the building with a gun raised high over his head.
“At first I didn’t know what to do or think,” she said. “I wanted to stay calm and not alarm anyone because I really didn’t know the man’s intentions. Then, just as he reached the front door, it occurred to me that he might just want to register the gun. To this day, I don’t know why that thought came to me.”
As it turned out Mueller’s instinct was correct, that is exactly what the man wanted to do. She steered him to the Police Department and an incident that had harrowing potential ended up being harmless.
On the lighter side, Rita laughs about the calls she got asking to speak to Clint Eastwood when he was Mayor of Carmel.
“Who knows how they mixed up Carmel with San Clemente,” she chuckled.
Mueller’s stories and antidotes about being a City Hall receptionist are endless, and it is obvious when relating these tales that she has loved the ten plus years she has spent in that position.
One of the things she gives high praise to is the fact that San Clemente’s City Hall has someone physically answering all the calls.
“In an era when most City Halls are answering calls electronically, frustrating people who want to talk to a real person, we provide that friendly, personal touch that people are hungry for in our society today,” Rita stated. “It’s just another of many things that makes this job so special.”
Although still a part of the City Clerk’s Department, Mueller has recently been moved out of the receptionist job into another in the same department. She now holds the position of Records Coordinator, and is proud to be involved in a project electronically scanning all City records and documents, loading them into a computer program, making them more easily accessible to everyone.
Although Rita sometimes misses her old job she speaks highly of her replacement, Arleen Duda, her qualifications, abilities and professionalism. She also lauds the team of four full-time women and one part-timer whom she works with under the direction of City Clerk Myrna Erway.
“We are a team,” Mueller said. “Any one of us can do the other’s job. We’re like a family and I just love coming to work everyday.”
It sounds like Rita Mueller has arrived, settled in and might finally be feeling “welcomed to God’s country” after all.
Office Assistant Township of Waukesha, Milwaukee population 6,000
City Receptionist City of San Clemente
Records Coordinator City of San Clemente
Son: Todd (Living in Ventura, CA)
Hobbies: Gardening, Biking, Walking in Harbor
Favorite Quote: “Only in San Clemente” – a favorite among the staff.