Ethel Andrus

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Ethel Andrus

The image of retirement as the end of a productive, contributory life has been considerably altered by the efforts of Ethel Andrus (1884-1967), founder of the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Although Andrus was dedicated to the improvement of living conditions and to the education of her students and their parents, her most significant achievements occurred after her own retirement from teaching.

Ethel Percy Andrus was born in San Francisco, California, on September 21, 1884. She was the younger of two daughters of George Wallace Andrus and Lucretia Frances Duke. The family moved to Chicago when Andrus was a baby so that her father could finish his legal education at the University of Chicago.

Served the Community

Andrus spent most of her youth in Chicago, graduating from Austin High School. She taught English and German at the Lewis Institute (later, the Illinois Institute of Technology) while continuing her own education. She earned her B.S. from the Lewis Institute in 1908. Andrus was active in the community; she did volunteer work at Hull House and at the Chicago Commons, both settlement houses. Her urge to serve the community grew out of the example set by her father. She believed that we must do some good for which we receive no reward other than the satisfaction of knowing that we have provided an important service.

In 1910, Andrus returned to California with her family. She taught classes at Santa Paula High School for a year, then taught at Manual Arts High School and Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles. Among her pupils were actors Robert Preston and Robert Young, and General James Doolittle. She became principal of Lincoln High School in 1917, the first woman in California history to hold such a post.

During her 28-year tenure at Lincoln High School, Andrus had many notable achievements. Her urban high school faced problems of juvenile delinquency as well as cultural, ethnic, and racial conflict. Andrus was determined to improve the quality of life for her students, their parents, and others in her community. She strove to instill in her students a sense of pride in their own cultural heritage and an appreciation of the cultural life and values in the United States. By encouraging her students to conduct themselves with self-respect, and by treating them with dignity, Andrus helped to lower the rate of juvenile crime. Her desire to achieve harmony in the neighborhood extended to the parents of her students as well as to the community at large. She established the Opportunity School for Adults, an evening program designed to assist immigrant parents of her pupils. The popularity of the program eventually led to its expansion into a full-time evening education institution through which people in the community could earn a high school diploma.

The contributions made by Andrus led to a substantial drop in juvenile crime and earned the school special citations from the juvenile court in East Los Angeles in 1940. Lincoln High School was selected by the National Education Association to be featured in its textbook Learning Ways of Democracy.

While working on behalf of her students and the community, Andrus continued her own education, earning her M.A. in 1928 and her Ph.D. in 1930 from the University of Southern California. Her doctoral dissertation promoted the establishment of a high school curriculum for girls that would be based on their nature and address their needs. She spent her summers teaching courses at the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, and Stanford University.

Retirement Led to Second Career

Andrus retired from teaching in 1944. It was then that her second career as an advocate for the retired and other older Americans evolved. Although she had her own income, the meagerness of her state pension, $60 per month, aroused her interest in the quality of life enjoyed by her fellow retired teachers. As welfare director of the southern section of the California Retired Teachers Association, Andrus began to examine pensions and other benefits provided to retired teachers across the country. Her research led her to believe that a national organization was needed to address the needs of her peers. She founded and became president of the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA) in 1947.

AARP Founded

As president and founder of the NRTA, Andrus devoted herself to improving the living conditions of her fellow retired teachers by lobbying for benefits such as affordable health insurance for persons over age 65, increased pensions, and tax benefits. She won a major victory in 1956, when she persuaded the Continental Casualty insurance company to underwrite a program for NRTA members-the first group health and accident insurance plan for retired persons over the age of 65. The popularity of the insurance coverage for retired teachers brought requests for Andrus to help other retired people to receive comparable benefits. In response, she established and became leader of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in 1958.

Her continued concern for the costs of health care faced by retired people resulted in the creation of a nonprofit mail-order drug buying service in 1959. The service made it possible for members of AARP and NRTA to purchase prescription medicines at prices at least 25 percent below retail prices. Mail-order centers staffed by licensed pharmacists were established in California and in Washington, D.C. Prescription drugs were delivered directly to the doors of AARP and NRTA members. In announcing the establishment of the program, Andrus explained that the service was motivated by extensive research which revealed that "Americans over 65 years of age spend approximately ten percent of their average annual income for drugs and medications.

In July 1959, Andrus appeared before Congress to express her opposition to a health care bill based on an added payroll tax, as proposed by Representative Aime J. Forand, a Rhode Island Democrat. Instead, she proposed a nationwide system whereby the U.S. government would deduct from social security benefits the cost of premiums for those people who chose the plan. Administration of the plan would be handled by a private board of trustees. Andrus opposed the Forand bill because it denied freedom of choice. She appeared before Congress again-in December 1959-to protest the actions of Parke, Davis & Company of Detroit in cutting off sales to a distributor supplying discount drugs to retired members of the AARP and the NRTA.

"Creative Energy is Ageless"

Andrus promoted the belief that retired people should remain actively engaged in life. She was opposed to mandatory retirement laws and advised people considering retirement to take up a second career. Andrus heeded her own advice: her second career evolved when she became an enthusiastic promoter of a wider range of opportunities for older people. She worked for the right of retired teachers to work as substitutes; encouraged older people to perform services such as tutoring children, working with the hearing-impaired, and becoming involved in church work and city planning; and organized a travel program through the AARP.

During a visit to New York in 1959, Andrus explained that both the NRTA and the AARP are based on the belief that "creative energy is ageless." In an interview with Time, in 1954, she said, "As it is, when you leave a job, they often just give you a gold watch and all you can do is look at it and count the hours until you die. Yet think of all the grand things we can do that youth can't. Think of all the things we already have done. Some day, the retired teachers in this country will have the dignity they deserve."

Andrus deplored the lack of wider job opportunities for older citizens. In 1963, she founded the Institute of Life Long Learning to provide classes and seminars focused on the needs and interests of retired people and other older Americans. Additional branches of the Institute were established in California and Florida. Her efforts received national recognition and she was asked to serve as a member of the national advisory committee for the White House Conference on Aging in 1961. She also worked as executive secretary for the American School for Girls in Damascus, Syria; and as a member of the advisory board of the American Association of Homes for the Aged. Andrus edited four Association journals, including Modern Maturity, the monthly magazine of the AARP. She helped to establish Grey Gables, a retirement home for teachers, in Ojai, California, in 1954. She was named National Teacher of the Year in 1954.

AARP Work Continued After Her Death

Andrus died in Ojai, California on July 13, 1967. She, and her work, were not forgotten. In 1968, the AARP Andrus Foundation was established. Its mission, as noted on the Andrus Foundation website, was "to enhance the lives of older adults through research on aging." In addition, the University of California, the AARP, and the NRTA established the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center in 1973. Another honor came 25 years later. In 1998, Andrus was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Andrus's belief in and commitment to promoting the interests of older Americans continues through the work of the AARP and the NRTA, both of which have become powerful lobbying forces composed of more than 30 million members. Whenever there is an opportunity to improve the quality of life through education, employment, or advances in healthcare coverage, the AARP and the NRTA are there to continue her work. As noted on the AARP website "This remarkable American leader served as a role model at a time when women were not highly visible in public life." She "exemplified her legacy of service to others."

Further Reading

Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Eight, 1966-1970, American Council of Learned Societies, 1988.

O'Neill, Lois Decker, Women's Book of World Records and Achievements, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979.

Sicherman, Barbara, Carol Hurd Green, Ilene Kantrov, and Harriette Walker, Notable American Women-The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

New York Times, April 12, 1959; July 17, 1959; August 23, 1959; November 5, 1959; December 12, 1959; July 15, 1967.

Time, May 10, 1954, p. 79.

"AARP Celebrates Women's History Month," AARP Webplace, (April 13, 1999).

"About the AARP Andrus Foundation," AARP Andrus Foundation Webplace, (April 7, 1999).

"What is AARP?" AARP Webplace, (March 7, 1999). □