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Ethel Percy Andrus' Service in Chicago Drives AARP's Mission

AARP Illinois programs echo Andrus' work

En español | Moving to Chicago, an upstart city at the forefront of social change at the end of the 19th century, altered the life of Ethel Percy Andrus.

Chicago is where Andrus attended college, worked as a teacher and volunteered in the settlement houses for the poor. Those were the early experiences that nurtured her desire to help people and eventually led Andrus to found the American Association of Retired Persons — now AARP.

"We are carrying on the programs Ethel Percy Andrus started," said Merri Dee, AARP Illinois state president and former longtime Chicago broadcaster. "It's amazing how far she went with one brainchild of an idea."

Andrus was born in San Francisco and moved as a girl with her family to Chicago, where her father attended law school. The family lived in the Austin neighborhood, then an upper-middle-class enclave on the West Side with tree-lined parkways and gracious homes.

But Andrus was more interested in a life of service. She attended the Lewis Institute, now the Illinois Institute of Technology, earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in 1903 and then began teaching.

The Chicago where Andrus spent these formative years was undergoing rapid urbanization. "She moved to a city on the upswing," said Peter Alter, archivist at the Chicago History Museum. Immigrants flooded Chicago to take jobs in the meatpacking, steel and railroad industries. But workers found harsh conditions in the city. Sweatshops were common. Workers were often abused. Sanitation was poor.

During this period, Andrus developed a lifelong passion for service. She worked at two settlement houses — the famous Hull House founded by Jane Addams and the Chicago Commons. Andrus followed in the footsteps of a group of middle- and upper-class women like Addams who embodied the progressive era with its goal to help those in need. "It was a huge social movement in Chicago," said archivist Alter.

AARP Illinois collaborated with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum last month for a talk by AARP historian Lily Liu about the relationship between Addams and Andrus.

After moving back to California, Andrus became the state's first female high school principal. True to her social activist roots in Chicago, after retiring from the school system, she founded the National Retired Teacher Association in 1947 and AARP in 1958.

Next: 'What's Your Story?' Contest. >>

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