Forget six degrees of separation. When it comes to new AARP Texas President Olivia “Ollie” Besteiro, it seems like everyone is connected with her in some fashion.
Besteiro, who succeeds departing President Mary Scott of Bedford, has touched many lives throughout a distinguished career in education and most recently as a volunteer on senior issues. She served as president of the Texas State Teachers Association from 1989 to 1993 and taught elementary school in Brownsville for 29 years.
As the volunteer president of AARP Texas, she will be the public face of an organization with more than 2.3 million members in Texas. Among the group’s signature issues are making health care more available and affordable, promoting financial security and working to make communities more livable in terms of housing, transportation and supporting services.
“Ollie is a one-of-a-kind person who is literally at home wherever she goes,” said Associate State Director Joe Sánchez, who has known Besteiro and her family for more than 25 years. “Regardless of the setting, she seems to know the person and their life story, or knows the person’s family or is even related to that individual. It’s amazing.”
Added AARP Texas Director Bob Jackson, “It’s not easy to find someone who commands the respect and admiration that Ollie has in Texas, a woman equally at ease talking to a committee chair as she is working a room full of AARP members and citizens. We’re fortunate to have her as our state president succeeding another outstanding leader, Mary Scott.”
A self described “political junkie,” Besteiro has rubbed elbows with the likes of President Ronald Reagan at a state dinner in the White House and later when he visited Brownsville for a speech at the invitation of husband Albert, who was president of Texas Southmost College. She was the only active classroom teacher to be invited to the White House when President Jimmy Carter signed the bill making the Secretary of Education an official cabinet position. But it is in the Texas Capitol in Austin where Besteiro feels most at home, talking plain old common sense to members of both parties in a way that is both engaging and leaves no room for doubt regarding the positions she represents.
During the past two legislative sessions, Besteriro has been a key member of the “Capitol Gang,” a group of AARP issue specialists who lobby lawmakers on behalf of seniors. In this capacity, she has presented testimony before numerous legislative committees on issues dealing with the disabled, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), foster care and legal issues empowering grandparents.
To understand this fascinating woman one must understand what got her going in the first place. Of her start as an elementary school teacher in Brownsville in 1957, she says, “I was assigned to teach students whose lives were complicated by both financial and social problems. Thus began my activism for those individuals who did not have a happy childhood and a loving family as I did.”
From advocating for students, Besteiro moved to advocating for better working conditions for teachers. She was later elected school board president, state TSTA board member, committee chair, vice president and finally, president. She was also actively involved in the National Education Association (NEA), serving as a national delegate for the World Confederation of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP) and testifying before a congressional committee dealing with the education of immigrant students.
Volunteerism is one of the driving forces that guide Besteiro’s life. Among her experiences are serving as committee chair of the Brownsville League of Women Voters, working as a docent at the LBJ Presidential Library and being an active member of the Pan American Round Table, a nonprofit international organization devoted to fostering understanding, knowledge and friendship among the peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
When not volunteering for AARP nowadays, Besteiro can be found traveling to foreign countries and learning about other cultures, but it is being an advocate that gives her the most joy.