In 1944, while driving to a faculty meeting at the Los Angeles high school where she’d served as principal for almost three decades, Ethel Percy Andrus made a decision that surprised even her. She decided to retire and leave the school she loved in order to take care of her mother, Lucretia, who had been in poor health.
That decision, wrapped in a simple act of human kindness, resulted in the founding of two organizations that have made life better for millions of people — the National Retired Teachers Association and AARP.
The Early Years
Ethel Percy Andrus was born in San Francisco in 1884, but spent most of her childhood in Chicago. After earning a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from the University of Chicago, she began teaching. At night, she conducted classes for residents of two pioneering settlement houses — Hull House and Chicago Commons.
After her family returned to California, Andrus taught in Los Angeles at Santa Paula High School and Manual Arts High School. In 1916, she moved to East Los Angeles High School and soon was appointed principal — making her, at age 32, California’s first female high school principal. She changed the name of the school to Abraham Lincoln High School, hoping to inspire its large (2,500) and ethnically diverse student body.
She set high academic standards and established innovative community-involvement programs that developed the students’ character and skills while breaking down cultural barriers between them. She also offered night-school programs for parents, and continued her own education, culminating in a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) from the University of Southern California.
Standing Up for Retired Teachers – Launching her second career
Following her many years in education and nursing her mother back to health, Dr. Andrus turned her attention to the needs of people in the second half of their lives.
As a volunteer with the California Retired Teachers Association, Ethel was dismayed to meet retired teachers whose pensions had been eroded by inflation and rising health care costs. One day, Dr. Andrus paid a call on a distinguished former teacher who was living in a backyard chicken coop because her income was too meager to afford decent housing.
That injustice spurred Dr. Andrus to establish the National Retired Teachers Association in 1947. NRTA gave retired educators a national voice in making life better for all.
At that time most insurance companies thought it risky to offer health insurance to people 65 and older. Dr. Andrus was determined to develop an affordable group health insurance policy for retired teachers, and was turned down by 42 companies before she found one willing to take a chance. The resulting health insurance plan proved so popular that NRTA’s offices were flooded with letters and phone calls from non-educators seeking to buy health insurance.
Standing up for all Older Americans – the founding of AARP
In 1958, Dr. Andrus decided to establish a new organization modeled on the retired teachers group and founded what was then known as the American Association of Retired Persons. AARP offered an affordable group health insurance plan, and much, much more.
AARP advocated for public policy changes. To keep members informed, Dr. Andrus founded and edited Modern Maturity, known today as the AARP Magazine -- the nation's largest circulation magazine. Local chapters fostered opportunities for fellowship and service. Trustworthy consumer information helped retirees stretch their dollars. Charitable and philanthropic efforts focused on the most vulnerable in society. And AARP used its members’ collective buying power to drive down prescription drug prices, to establish affordable group travel and encourage other companies to improve their products and services.
In addition, Dr. Andrus launched one of the nation’s first “universal design” homes. She conceived of the idea to help persuade delegates to the first White House Conference on the Aging to support construction of housing where people could live safely and comfortably as they aged. She presented the keys to this innovative “House of Freedom” to former President Dwight Eisenhower. Out of these beginnings, AARP Livable Communities
Mourning the loss of a ‘friend to humanity’
When Ethel died in 1967, President Johnson said, “The life of each citizen who seeks relentlessly to serve the national good is a most precious asset to this land. And the loss of such a citizen is a loss shared by every American. In Ethel Percy Andrus, humanity had a trusting and untiring friend. She has left us all poorer by her death. But by her enduring accomplishments, she has enriched not only us, but all succeeding generations of Americans.”
AARP’s founder pioneered affordable group health insurance for older persons a full seven years before Medicare was enacted. She recognized that simple modifications to homes could make them safer and more comfortable for people as they aged. She helped to change the very image of aging, focusing on zestfulness, lifelong learning, purpose and service to others.
AARP's Motto: “To Serve, Not to Be Served”
Dr. Andrus demonstrated that one person can make a significant difference in the lives of others. She also demonstrated that, together, an “army of useful citizens” can do what no one person can do alone. Today, in significant part because of the work of Dr. Andrus, Americans are living longer, richer lives.
Dr. Andrus lived her life by the motto, “To serve, not to be served,” which remains AARP’s motto today. She founded AARP on the principles of collective purpose, collective voice and collective purchasing power. Nearly 65 years later, AARP still champions these principles in a world that is rapidly changing – all in the spirit of its spirited founder, Ethel Percy Andrus.
Free E-Book about the incredible story behind the Founder of AARP
This beautifully illustrated book is the first comprehensive history of Ethel Percy Andrus, the founder of AARP, the nation’s largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering Americans 50 and older to choose how they live as they age.
A social innovator, visionary and disruptor, Andrus pioneered marketplace solutions to help older Americans stretch their dollars and improve the quality of their lives, such as affordable group health insurance, a discount drug-buying plan, and a travel service.
She worked hard to create affordable, accessible housing for people as they age and unite the generations through volunteerism. She fought fraud and helped establish a new image of aging in the workplace and beyond. And as an educator, she served as a teacher and principal, launched a school for adults, and later founded the Institute of Lifetime Learning.