Dr. Robert Muller, co-founder and former chancellor of Costa Rica’s University for Peace, and hailed by many as a “Prophet of Hope,” died Monday, Sept. 20, the eve of the International Day of Peace, at the age of 87. He died in Santa Barbara, California, and was honored in a webcast memorial service Sept. 27.
Born in Belgium in 1923 and raised in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, Muller came of age in a turmoil-filled world.
Because of wars and constant border disputes before Muller was born, his family had changed nationalities four times without ever moving from home. As a child he gazed across the French-German border to the winding Rhine River, and wondered why he was unable to cross this imaginary line. After all, on the other side of the border lived people just like him – people who shared his customs and language.
Muller fought with the French underground resistance movement during World War II and witnessed firsthand the horrors of violence and death. One night, after seeing 20 German prisoners slaughtered in a vicious act of revenge, he swore to devote the rest of his life to promoting peace.
From a young age Muller understood that peace and education walk hand in hand. He earned a Doctorate of Law from the University of Strasbourg, the largest university in France and one of the most prestigious in Europe.
Later, as the first-prize winner of an essay contest for French youth, Muller was offered an internship in the newly established United Nations in 1948. There, spending all of his time in an attempt to promote peace, he gained his colleagues’ admiration and climbed the ranks to become undersecretary general of the U.N. He worked in the organization for 40 years.
The author of almost 30 books and the creator of the “world core curriculum,” Muller was the recipient of the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education, the Albert Schweitzer International Prize for the Humanities and the Eleanor Roosevelt Man of Vision Award, and was named the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation world citizen honoree for 2002.
In 1980, Muller cofounded with then Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo the University for Peace (UPEACE), the U.N.-mandated graduate school for peace studies in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica. During the 2009-2010 academic year, UPEACE had more than 200 students from 57 countries, making it one of the most diverse campuses in the world for its size.
Charmed by a country that had abolished the death penalty in 1882 and its army in 1948, Muller moved to Costa Rica fulltime and purchased a hilltop home in Ciudad Colón in 1986. While debating whether or not to buy the land, he found an old entry in his journal. It read, I dream that someday as a sort of elder of the United Nations, “I will live on a hill with a breathtaking view and spend my last days writing the beautiful stories of my life and my visions for a better world.” Abiding by a strict personal rule to always live his dreams, he moved in immediately.
Muller championed for peace on a world scale, but also concerned himself with nature and his community, leading always by example. He planted thousands of trees around the UPEACE campus, letting natural vegetation once again claim land that for years had been no more than sterile pasture.
Longtime friend and neighbor Victoria Kirk remembers running into Muller often on the road in the El Rodeo protected zone, near UPEACE, where he would customarily walk and pick up trash left behind by careless hikers.
“He never complained to me once about the trash and how people would litter. He simply went out and picked it up,” she says. “Dr. Muller left a lasting impression on everyone who met him and impacted lives all over the world in many ways.”