Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus was born on April 21, 1884, in San Francisco, California, and raised in Chicago when her father moved the family there to study law. In 1903, she graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, and later a BS from the Lewis Institute, now Illinois Institute of Technology. After moving back to California, she received her master’s degree from the University of Southern California in 1928 and a PhD in 1930. She never married. With no children of her own, she devoted her professional life to educating the children of others who needed special encouragement.
Dr. Andrus began her teaching career in California about 1910 after family moved back to the state. She taught English and German in several high schools. Then, in 1916, when the principal of Eastern High School (later renamed Abraham Lincoln High School) moved on, she was appointed to fill the position. She became California’s first female high school principal.
The school’s diverse student body spoke 32 languages, including Spanish, Italian, Russian and Chinese. During her 28 years as principal, Dr. Andrus focused not only on education, but also on knitting the diverse student body and their families together through community service projects – a novelty at the time. Andrus used the high school in the evening, inviting shop keepers, carpenters and other parents to serve as guest educators – teaching each other new skills.
“Our student body became a part of the larger social movements of Lincoln Heights. Our athletes became the coaches and sponsors of their respective elementary schools. Training rules kept prospective delinquents in bed at bedtime to qualify,” Dr. Andrus wrote.
“Recognition for civic performance satisfied and fed the drives of youth, which like age, wants to be needed, to be praised and be ‘a member of a team.’”
She turned the school around and placed a huge wrought iron gateway to the school with the words OPPORTUNITY at the top. Everyone who entered had to pass underneath. She transformed the school from one with high drop-out and juvenile delinquency rates to one with the highest achievement.
In 1944, Dr. Andrus retired with a pension of $60 per month, to care for her seriously ill mother. Like so many women then and now, she left work to become a full-time caregiver. And thus began the volunteer career which defined her life. The chicken coop story became a reality.
Around this time Dr. Andrus began volunteering with the California Retired Teachers Association. She learned from a local grocer, 30 miles outside of Los Angeles, that an older woman who came to his store needed food, eyeglasses, and dentures. With the address in hand, Dr. Andrus set out to visit her on a cold, drizzly day. The address led her to a sizable bungalow where no one was home. Puzzled, she inquired with a neighbor, who suggested she check on the old woman who lived “out back.”
“Out back” was a chicken coop. Dr. Andrus knocked on the door of the windowless shack. The occupant, wearing a ragged coat, slipped through the door and closed it behind her. Upon learning her name, Dr. Andrus recalled the woman’s reputation as a Spanish teacher of some distinction. Once settled on the front seat of Andrus’ car out of the rain, the woman told her story. Sales opportunities for the scenic acreage she had bought over time as an investment had been diminished by the Great Depression. While the retiree still had her $40 monthly pension, she could not afford decent housing or health care.
Dr. Andrus got mad. Then she got organized. When she started searching for health insurance for retired teachers, she discovered it was a herculean task, and realized she needed a group. In 1947, at age 63, she formed the National Retired Teachers Association and set about obtaining decent living standards and affordable health insurance for them. There was no Medicare yet and most insurance companies saw covering older people as a costly risk. After being turned down by 42 insurance companies, finally in 1956, Dr. Andrus found a company willing to take a chance on health care for older adults. The retired teachers’ health plan and the organization’s focus on financial security were such hits that, in 1958, Dr. Andrus created a new organization – now known as AARP – to serve the needs of non-educators.
In 1954 at the age of 70, she moved to Ojai, CA, to start a residence for retired teachers: Grey Gables of Ojai.
Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus died July 13, 1967, at the age of 83. The same year, AARP membership reached one million.
In addition to NRTA and AARP, you could add the passage of Medicare to Dr. Andrus’s accomplishments. Signed into law on July 30, 1965, by Lyndon Johnson it took the pressure of Andrus and AARP to bring about the bill’s final passage. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame
Here are some of her favorite quotes:
“What I spent is gone, what I kept I lost, but what I gave away will be mine forever.”
“Three principles: collective purpose, collective voice and collective purchasing power.”
Her motto, “To serve and not be served” is still the motto of AARP