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Champions of Aging

Ethel Percy Andrus

AARP founder proved that there’s strength in numbers

As a 1959 New York Times profile of AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus noted, she had a favorite bit of advice to people who dreaded retirement: Don’t. Andrus practiced what she preached.

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Ethel Percy Andrus

Ethel Percy Andrus, 1884-1967.

After retiring from her position as a Los Angeles high school principal in 1944, the award-winning educator began a second career that ultimately had a far bigger impact on society. She became an activist and organizer on behalf of other retirees and older Americans, fighting to improve their financial security, their health care and other services that they need.

Andrus was born in San Francisco but spent her early life in Chicago, where her father, George, moved the family while he studied law.  After earning an undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1903, Andrus began teaching. Her father, whom she once described as “a man who believed everyone should do good somewhere,” had instilled that credo in his daughter as well, and so the young woman ventured out of her upscale Chicago neighborhood in search of a suitable mission.

In those days, the city where Andrus lived was a prime destination for impoverished, uneducated immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, who came in search of jobs in the city’s meatpacking plants, steel mills and railroads. These newcomers often were cruelly exploited, forced to work long hours for low wages and to live in crowded, unsanitary slums — a plight vividly depicted in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle.

In an effort to improve conditions for that underclass, progressive activists such as Jane Addams founded settlement houses, where immigrant families could obtain social services and education. The idealistic Andrus joined that movement, teaching school during the day and spending her evenings and weekends working at Addams’ famous Hull House and the Chicago Commons.

Andrus moved back to California with her family in 1910, where she taught at Santa Paula High School and the Manual Arts High School (her subjects included English and German).  In 1916, at age 32, she was appointed principal of Eastern High School (later renamed Abraham Lincoln High School), becoming California’s first-ever female high school principal.

At Lincoln, an inner-city school with a large, ethnically diverse student body, Andrus worked to raise academic standards, and started the Junior Coordinating Council, an outreach program that put students to work in the community, serving as volunteer nurses’ aides and running errands for older shut-ins. She even sometimes broke up street fights between boys, and regularly went to court to plead for a second chance for some.  “While there, I invited the policemen into the school to serve as big brothers,” she once told an interviewer. “And they did.”

The red-haired, bespectacled, soft-spoken Andrus was an iconoclast in an era of stern, authoritarian male principals. “She was the greatest principal, so nice and caring,” one of her former students told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. “She would talk to us about anything. No one was afraid to walk up to her and ask a question.”

Andrus also found time to worry about the plight of some of her retired faculty, who were penniless and struggling to make ends meet. In 1927, Andrus organized the Foundation to Assist California Teachers, and raised funds to start a retirement home in Inglewood and another in Pasadena.

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