Pioneering Educator Founded the AARP
“To promote independence, dignity and purpose....”
That was also the philosophy of Ethel Percy Andrus, California’s first female high school principal and the founder of AARP. She lived her retirement the same way she lived her working life -- physically and intellectually active and serving others.
From her determination to help penniless teachers sprang a powerful empire that today claims more than 35 million members -- the second-largest membership organization in the nation after the Catholic Church. When it speaks, politicians listen -- most recently when the group endorsed a controversial new Medicare law, though it quickly lost 20,000 members for doing so.
Andrus was born in San Francisco in 1884. Her family moved to Chicago where her father, George Andrus, studied law. She later described him as “a man who believed everyone should do good somewhere.”
After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1903, she taught English and German during the day and devoted evenings and weekends to the poor, teaching in homes where youngsters spent hours threading needles in bad candlelight so that their slightly older sisters could earn more money sewing piecework.
She returned to California in 1910, teaching at Santa Paula High School for a year. In 1911, Manual Arts High School recruited her. She taught there for five years. Her students included Goodwin Knight, who would become California’s 31st governor.
In June 1916, at age 32, she became principal at the 2-year-old Abraham Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights. Atop the school’s main wrought-iron entrance gate, one word was inscribed: “OPPORTUNITY.”
In an era of hard-nosed, gruff male principals, she might have passed for Marian the Librarian. She was a red-haired, bespectacled, soft-spoken educator whose mission was to spare the rod and work with children and parents. She built close relationships with teachers and inspired leadership skills and hope in students at a time when many pupils didn’t even reach senior year, let alone collect diplomas.
“When you spent time with Ethel,” a teacher at Lincoln recalled in an AARP publication, “you felt you’d had a drink of strong, heady wine.”
Although teaching the three R’s -- reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic -- was her most important goal, she helped students develop positive self-images and problem-solving skills. In a neighborhood that began as a middle-class, close-knit community of immigrants -- mostly Italian, Irish and German, with a sprinkling of other ethnicities -- she encouraged pride in family heritage.
Sensitive to the harsh realities of her students’ lives but determined to lower the school’s delinquency rate, she treated pupils with firmness and affection that produced extraordinary results.
“Somehow you found yourself acting the way she wanted you to,” one of her wayward students reported years later.
She organized an ambitious community outreach program called the Junior Coordinating Council. Teenage girls worked at County Hospital -- now County-USC Medical Center -- as volunteer nurses’ aides. Teenage boys ran errands for shut-ins.
She got to know students’ families by visiting their homes. She comforted the bereaved, shared in religious festivals and even broke up street fights, marching young toughs home to their parents.
“I can’t tell you the many times I went to court to rescue boys,” she said. “While there, I invited the policemen into the school to serve as big brothers. And they did!”
She was a rare combination of ideas and actions, seriousness and play. Recognizing the desire for knowledge among immigrant parents, she pioneered adult education classes.
In 1927, concerned about some of her retired teachers who were penniless, she helped create the Foundation to Assist California Teachers. The next year, with funds collected through the group, the first Teachers’ Home opened in a five-room house on Hillcrest Boulevard in Inglewood.
“Little by little, we accumulated money and responsibility,” Andrus said in a 1949 newspaper interview. By 1933, the foundation was able to refurbish an old home on East Villa Street in Pasadena, where 19 retired teachers made their home. (In 1987, a new 195-unit retirement facility, called Villa Gardens, opened on the same site to teachers and non-teachers alike.)
Andrus remained committed to higher education, especially for women. She set an example by enrolling at USC, earning her master’s in 1928 and doctorate in 1930.
At the beginning of the Great Depression, Andrus’ career was marked by a tragedy that inspired another of her campaigns.
On Jan. 21, 1930, it began with screams of terror during a school play. A sparkler had ignited the costume of Clara Barbarus, 14, who ran shrieking from the building. Andrus rushed after her, desperately trying to beat out the flames with her own coat.
Clara died, but her dash outside probably saved the lives of the other 20 female classmates on stage.
“If she hadn’t done what she did,” Andrus said, weeping, “we might have had a much greater catastrophe.”
At Andrus’ urging, the school board banned the use of flammable materials on school stages and insisted that a teacher be on stage at all times.
In 1933, the Long Beach earthquake and heavy rains damaged one of the school buildings and caused the adjacent hillside to slide closer to campus.
But when the school board ordered that the school be rebuilt elsewhere, Andrus rallied students and the community to demand that it stay put. They won. Lincoln High’s new campus was built a little farther from the hillside under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.
By the late 1930s, delinquency at Lincoln had dropped so sharply during Andrus’ tenure that a county judge of Juvenile Court awarded the school and its principal a special citation. The school’s success became a textbook study in 1940 by the National Education Assn.
Single and childless, she served as a mother figure to many and a friend to others. “I never met a child who couldn’t embrace me,” Andrus said
“She was the greatest principal -- so nice and caring,” said Mary Campise Fidone, 80, in a recent interview. The Glendora resident graduated from Lincoln High in 1942. “She would talk to us about anything. No one was afraid to walk up to her and ask her a question. And I never heard her yell at anyone.”
But some of her greatest accomplishments came after retirement.
In 1944, at 60, Andrus left Lincoln to nurse her ailing mother, Lucretia Duke Andrus, “the inspiration” for her success.
“She once told me, ‘You thought your work was done when you gave up youngsters, but it’s only the beginning,’ ” the younger Andrus said in a newspaper interview.
Her mother recovered and lived another seven years, dying at 93. Meanwhile, Andrus began pursuing a new calling.
As welfare director of the California Retired Teachers Assn., she was sharply aware of the lack of pension benefits and health insurance. She lobbied the state Legislature and rallied former teachers, who spread the word. Dollars flowed in from all over the nation and the National Retired Teachers Assn. was born in 1947, with Andrus as founder and president.
In 1954, she plunked down her own money on two Ojai buildings, which were remodeled and named the Grey Gables Retirement Community for teachers.
It was there, four years later, that Andrus held meetings, prepared the first issues of Modern Maturity and formed AARP, an outgrowth of the teachers association. Today, the retirement home is known as The Gables and operates without any link to AARP or the teachers group.
In 1965, USC’s gerontology research-teaching center was founded and named for her.
When she died in 1967 from a heart attack at 83, nearly 1,000 of her former students and teachers gathered at Lincoln to pay tribute. One of them was actor Robert Preston.
“The big iron scroll on the Abraham Lincoln High School gate through which we passed, seldom looking up, read: ‘OPPORTUNITY,’ ” he reminded mourners. “Isn’t it amazing that we didn’t know until we walked out: Opportunity had red hair.”