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.
Today, AARP Illinois spearheads programs that echo Andrus' Chicago experience. Home foreclosures are now a big problem in Illinois and even in the Austin neighborhood where Andrus once lived. Foreclosures in the Chicago region rose to more than 45,000 properties in 2010. AARP Illinois is working with the state attorney general's office on legislation to provide relief for individuals facing foreclosure.
Another AARP program trains community leaders on Chicago's West and South sides. The outreach project works with older Hispanic and African American adults to help them organize their neighborhoods. The goal is to make communities more livable.
Older people in the Latino Pilsen neighborhood, for example, are working to have a bus stop added near the local medical center so they can get to their doctors' appointments. Another effort will look at ways to help people stay in their own homes longer so they don't have to move to a nursing home.
Coming full circle, interns from the Jane Addams School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago are working with AARP Illinois on community organizing projects in Latino and African American areas of Chicago.
"This really makes the project special," said Jerry Kellman, associate director of outreach for AARP Illinois. "We are reflecting our founder's vision."
Jane Adler is a freelance writer based in Wilmette, Ill.