The Age of Reformation: The founding of AARP in Ojai

The Age of Reformation: Ethel Andrus and the Founding of AARP
by Craig Walker and Bret Bradigan
from The Ojai Quarterly

As Jack Fay remembers it, it was just a quiet business dinner with six people in a small meeting room at the Ojai Valley Inn. The air wasn’t charged with the momentous changes about to take place. Instead, they discussed legal incorporation issues and health insurance premiums.

Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus organized the meeting. She represented the Grey Gables in Ojai on behalf of the National Retired Teachers Association, and Fay was her lawyer. The others at the meeting were Ruth Lana, Andrus’ long-time lieutenant; Dorothy Crippen, Andrus’ cousin; Leonard Fialco, the assistant to the sixth person present, Leonard Davis, an ambitious if yet only modestly successful insurance broker from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

During that Ojai evening in 1958, the American Association of Retired Persons was born. And what it meant to grow old in this country changed dramatically. At first, the AARP was structured as a mechanism by which the National Retired Teachers Association, founded in 1947 by Andrus, could sell health insurance to the general public. The NRTA had been selling policies to retired teachers since 1956, and it had proven both profitable and popular. Insurance companies had turned Andrus down 40 times in the past 11 years. Yet in those pre-Medicare days she knew that people over 65 deserved the security and dignity that comes from knowing that they could rely on a doctor’s care.

When Andrus started the NRTA in 1947, 75 percent of people over the age of 65 lived with their relatives and 55 percent lived below the poverty line, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In 1940, life expectancy was 60.8 years for men, 65.2 for females. In 2007, life expectancy figures were 75.4 and 80.4 respectively.

Some of the increase in lifespan can be attributed to medical advances, which the AARP has advocated and funded. Some could also be plausibly attributed to the dynamic lifestyle that Dr. Andrus pioneered and of which she was a living example: a lifestyle based on exercise, travel, lifetime learning, second careers, political and social activism, volunteering and community service.

Despite its modest origins in Ojai, the AARP now has 40 million members and is considered one of the most powerful nonprofit organizations in the United States. Its magazine has the largest circulation of any periodical. Its lobbying arm in Washington, D.C, is considered the most formidable. The organization extends into every area of aging, from leading-edge research to group travel discounts.

Fay, a former Ojai mayor and city councilman, is still practicing law. He is the sole survivor of that meeting since the death of Davis in 2001.

“As the meeting broke up, Davis took me by the shoulder and whispered to me, “You’ll never get anywhere in life if you don’t think big,” Fay recalls. “And I thought that was a heck of a good idea. So, I started thinking big. It didn’t work for me, but it did work for Davis.”

Leonard Davis convinced Continental Casualty to start up a pilot program for selling policies to everyone over the age of 65, not just retired teachers. It proved an immediate success. It went nationwide, with Davis as the sole broker. “He had the whole country as a fertile field to sell his health insurance,” Fay says. “So he made the best of it.”

Davis put up $50,000 in startup money. Dr. Andrus founded Modern Maturity magazine, now AARP Magazine, which lobbied for the interests of the elderly and, perhaps not coincidentally, served as an excellent marketing vehicle for the health insurance policies in those pre- Medicare years.

Within a year, the number of policies written went from 5,000 to 15,000. Within a few decades, Forbes magazine listed Davis as one of its 400 wealthiest Americans, with a personal fortune estimated at $230 million at the time he sold his Philadelphia-based Colonial Penn Group in 1984.

“I remember that evening vividly,” Fay says, “But I don’t think any one of us realized the import. Who could have predicted it?”

If anyone could have predicted it, it would likely have been Dr. Andrus, who founded the NRTA in 1947 before moving to Ojai from Glendale in 1954 to open a revolutionary new retirement home for teachers at Grey Gables.

A daughter of the progressive movement
She was born in San Francisco in 1884, the daughter of what she described as “a struggling young attorney” and “his proud and admiring helpmate.” She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1903 and began her long and storied teaching career at the Lewis Institute, the first junior college in the country, now the Illinois Institute of Technology.

She volunteered regularly at the nearby Hull House, founded by prominent reformer Jane Addams, who in 1930 became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. At the time of Andrus’ volunteer service, however, the Hull House, founded just a few years earlier in 1897, was still an open experiment in social democracy, providing spiritual and educational uplift for its neighborhood of newly arrived immigrants in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Each week, as many as 2,000 people came to the settlement house for night school classes, kindergarten classes, its famed public kitchen, its art gallery, gym, bookbindery, drama groups and library.

Dr. Andrus might be seen as a product of the Progressive Movement, which arose in the late 19th century as a socially responsible response to the abject poverty in which many of the new wave of immigrants lived, as well as against the greed of the Gilded Age of robber barons and growing economic inequality. Crusading journalists like Ida Tarbell and Frank Norris brought attention to the dangers and humiliations faced by factory workers and farmers. In 1906, during Dr. Andrus’ service at the Hull House, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about Chicago’s meatpacking plants and stockyards, was published. With its nauseating descriptions of filthy practices and labor abuse, it led to such reforms as the Pure Food and Drug Act. The story of a Lithuanian immigrant and his family living in squalor and abuse, The Jungle intimately described many of the people for whom Addams, and Andrus, sought to provide a ladder out of poverty.

“I learned there to know life intimately and to value folks of different races and creeds,” Dr. Andrus wrote. “I saw there wonderful examples, not only of rehabilitation but of resurrection as well.”

Return to California
Her father’s failing health and eyesight brought her back to California. She took a teaching position at Santa Paula High School, which may have been her first exposure to Ojai, though she is said to have selected Ojai for her endeavors after giving a talk at Nordhoff High School in 1953.

In 1916, she was offered the assistant principal position at East Los Angeles High School. The following year, the principal retired and she was offered the job. At age 32, Ethel Percy Andrus had become the first female principal of a large, urban high school in the state of California.

With her flaming red hair and intense purpose, Andrus cut a memorable figure. One of her students, the actor Robert Preston of The Music Man fame, said, “The big iron scroll at Abraham Lincoln High School through which we passed said “Opportunity.” Isn’t it amazing that we didn’t know until we walked out: Opportunity had red hair!”

The lessons Ethel Percy Andrus learned at Hull House would serve her well over the next 28 years.

The school was notorious for its high rates of social dysfunction and juvenile delinquency. Despite the grand homes on the bluff overlooking the Los Angeles River, the district was also crowded with coldwater flats and tarpaper shacks from immigrant influxes: Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Mexican families particularly.

Lincoln Heights, considered the oldest neighborhood in Los Angeles, was always ethnically diverse, and racial clashes were common. It was the setting for the infamous Zoot Suit Riots, which began in 1942 because a Hispanic youth named Jose Diaz was allegedly murdered in Sleepy Lagoon in nearby Williams Ranch.

Asians, Latinos and Italians mixed with affluent founding families as well as Russian refugees from a Christian sect. Andrus wrote, “They lived in the flats near City Hall. They were an interesting people, led by an epileptic and financed by the elder Leo Tolstoi.”

Lincoln’s Legacy
Dr. Andrus’ first task was to find some concepts to unify these immigrants and starchy patricians into a community. “Our faith became an obsession,” she wrote. “We must keep our many nationalities conscious and proud of their racial and national background, of the contributions made to the American dream, and to the insistent obligation they, the youngsters, must themselves accept in raising their own coming families with a double loyalty; respecting their own roots and the traditions alike of America and the land and faith of their forefathers.”

Every school day, at auditorium call, the students repeated these words: “I hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. God hath made of one blood all races of men, and we are his children, brothers and sisters all.”

Her father’s hero was Abraham Lincoln. Her nephew was named Lincoln. Lincoln was also the hero of her mentor, Jane Addams, whose father was one of the founders of the Republican Party and a personal friend of the Great Emancipator. In 1919, Dr. Andrus was instrumental in having the neighborhood renamed from East Los Angeles to Lincoln Heights, and the 2,000-student school renamed Abraham Lincoln High School.

One of the anecdotes told about Lincoln was that after he gave a conciliatory speech about the Confederacy, a woman in the audience said, “But Mr. President, we must destroy our enemies!” Lincoln replied, “Yes, ma’am. But do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Dr. Andrus took that story to heart, always working to defuse tensions in the multiethnic community and build a shared sense of purpose. She forged strong connections. She worked with Los Angeles County Community Hospital to train nurses at the school. She encouraged civic associations like the Optimists to sponsor education awards and scholarships. Former athletes came back as coaches. Standout students went to college and came back as teachers. Besides Robert Preston, among her renowned alumni were actor Robert Young (who played Marcus Welby, M.D.) and Cardinal Robert Mahoney.

It didn’t take long before Dr. Andrus’ reforming zeal stirred up controversy, and delivered results. For example, she dropped Latin and Greek, and added vocational courses. “The discipline and faith routinely ingrained by the school reduced juvenile delinquency and brought a citation from the Superior Court,” wrote Scott Hart in “The Power of Years,” an Andrus biography commissioned by the NRTA and the AARP.

Among her proudest achievements was founding the Opportunity School with but one other certificated teacher, but with a staff of vital teachers: engineers, salesmen, preachers and the like. It later became the Lincoln Heights Adult Evening School,” she wrote. It served as a focal point for a community fractured along ethnic and economic lines.

Dr. Andrus said, “It was not a revolutionary idea–except in practice–to realize that the sons and daughters of folk pouring in from every corner of the globe had now some kind of common background, something to hold them together, a community pride.”

A lifelong learner, Dr. Andrus received her M.A. in 1928, and, in 1930, became one of the first women to receive her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

She also brought her faculty together into a tight-knit team. Ed Wenig, her drama teacher, moved to Ojai after his retirement to help her with the NRTA. Wenig became an esteemed local historian as well as a columnist for Modern Maturity magazine.

Wenig’s daughter, Patty Atkinson, was five in 1956 when the family moved to Ojai. “She was an imposing woman–she commanded a lot of authority,” Atkinson says of Andrus. Atkinson says her father adored Dr. Andrus, serving on many boards with her, including the NRTA, and helping with her many writing and publishing ventures after moving to Ojai.

Atkinson remembers her father, who had quite a peripatetic career including a stint teaching in the Philippines before joining forces with Dr. Andrus, talking about the day in 1942 that the Japanese students were rounded up to go to internment camps. “As the buses passed the school, the entire student body stood outside and waved,” she recalls. That measure of human respect was directly due to Andrus’ influence.

She also says her father would herd the students into assemblies and stage radio plays while the faculty held meetings. Often, Wenig would have to frisk students for weapons as they filed into the auditorium.

Even as Lincoln High School became nationally recognized for excellence, Dr. Andrus’ methods were studied and encouraged by the National Educational Association, her priorities changed to the very local near the end of the school year in 1944.

“My resignation came to Lincoln and myself as a sudden surprise,” she said. That morning the nurse attending my mother told me of her belief that my mother was to be a hopeless invalid. On the way to school, I determined that I could give to her the loving care she had given to my father during his blindness.”

Dr. Andrus was 60 years old, with a full life of significant achievements. But it was while caring for her mother that she became acutely aware of the problems faced by aging people. And so she launched the second, and most enduring, role of her career.

The Chicken Coop
In the AARP’s current television ads, the camera lens takes in a decrepit chicken coop, with the narration: “The unlikely birth place of a fundamental idea… Ethel couldn’t ignore the clear need for health and financial security, and it inspired her to found AARP.”

The chicken coop incident came not long after her retirement. While she was caring for her mother, Dr. Andrus kept busy with professional associations. She was named director of welfare for the Southern Section of the California Teachers Association, charged with seeing to the material needs of thousands of retirees.

It was a job she took personally, having learned that her pension, after 40 years in education, was $61.49 a month plus another $23.93 a month in an annuity, barely even a living wage. While she could rely on family money and other sources of income, she realized that very few teachers had such privileges waiting for them after their careers were over. Most retired teachers in those days were women, who were left especially destitute when widowed.

One day a local grocer asked Dr. Andrus if she would check on an old woman he hadn’t seen in several days. He gave Ethel the woman’s address. The people who lived there didn’t recognize the name, but then said, “Oh, you must mean the old woman living out back.” That’s when Andrus discovered that one of her retired teachers was living in a chicken coop. The woman was gravely ill, but had no money to visit a doctor. It was a moment that would charge Ethel Percy Andrus’ life with a new purpose.

She set about this new mission with great deliberation. The first step was to organize teachers nationwide in an effort to boost their collective clout. On Oct. 13, 1947, the 125 members of the California Retired Teachers Association present in Berkeley voted unanimously to form the National Retired Teachers Association.

That long journey eventually led to Ojai. Dr. Andrus began stumping the country, giving talks about the issues of aging, about the great gifts that elderly people could contribute to society, and about the means and mechanisms by which that pent-up potential would be realized. She brought an evangelical zeal to the task, repudiating the well-meaning social workers, retirement home activity directors, and even retirees themselves who fill the days of retired people with recreational activities like bingo or shuffleboard.

Older people need purpose in their life, meaningful and productive work, Dr. Andrus said. She objected to the term ‘senior citizen’ as isolating and demeaning. “We wouldn’t call 45-year-olds junior citizens,” she would say.

Friends and associates noticed a marked difference in Dr. Andrus. “She might talk with nostalgia of

Model of Grey Gables used at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.the halls of ivy, and hours later with iron firmness about a business matter. Her ability to listen equaled her gift for quick brisk speech, everyone left her company feeling good about themselves, according to Power of Years.

the halls of ivy, and hours later with iron firmness about a business matter. Her ability to listen equaled her gift for quick brisk speech, everyone left her company feeling good about themselves,” according to The Power of Years.

Fay says that being in her presence “was an amazing feeling. She was an idealist and a visionary, and her lieutenants, Dorothy and Ruth, did the nuts and bolts work, and I did the legal work. She was a leader in the true sense of the word. She had great charisma, very articulate, although soft-spoken. She had such an aura about her, that I’ve been with her on several occasions when as soon as she walked into a room, silence came over it, and they looked at her in awe.”

One of the goals she set for the NRTA was to provide a model facility for active retirement. As she began casting about for a location, she might have remembered Ojai for its warm, dry air and bright sunshine from her days as a teacher in nearby Santa Paula; or she might have had conversations with local residents about the idea after giving a talk at Nordhoff High School, then located on El Paseo Drive.




Grey Gables of Ojai



Quiet Town, Big Changes
The morning after her Nordhoff talk in 1953, she saw two buildings for sale; a house on the corner of Montgomery Street and Grand Avenue, and a three-story building behind it. The property, Grey Gables, already had several small apartments, common living areas, a library and a large music hall. The NRTA put in an offer.

She had a grander vision of what retirement living could be than anything that had come before. Dr. Andrus foresaw a nursing home where the elderly might receive 24-hour care, and where they would actively work, volunteer and participate in the life of their community.

The city was skeptical. There were two other applicants for the site: Sam Sklar, who had recently bought Wheeler Hot Springs, and planned to operate the Gables in conjunction with his resort; and Alcoholics Anonymous, looking for a rest home for people in recovery. “The City was also not eager for us, grudgingly granting us the license which was essential to the sale only after being forced to decide between the claims of Alcohol[ics] Anonymous, a resort of uncertain moral standards and a retirement home. Finally, at long last, the City Council felt our institution was the least worst, and Grey Gables was in the forming,” Andrus wrote. Obstacles loomed, however.

The previous owners proved difficult. “The Sanfords were unpredictable; they wanted badly to sell, but

Grey Gables in 1954

they hated the necessity of foregoing their dream,” Andrus wrote.
But the sale was a necessity. The Sanfords were about to be foreclosed on, owing $80,000 on the property. (Alee Sanford had her own, parallel vision for the property when she built it in the late 1940s, as a resident teachers’ club and library, with subsidized housing for local teachers.)

The first five years were a whirlwind of activity. Dr. Andrus brought Lana to Ojai as her trusted advisor, and they set to work “often substituting sheer energy for cash, and nervous energy for cash,” she later wrote. They created the menus, arranged the activities and attended the phones 24 hours a day.

The first resident, Emma McRedie Turner, from Chicago, arrived on July 17, 1954. “I was absolutely alone here, but the patrol car came by regularly,” she was quoted as saying in The Power of Years. Within 10 years, it had 85 residents.

“We of Grey Gables are certain that this project will be a pilot one, the first perhaps of many to prove to the world that retirement can be a dynamic adventure in gracious living,” Andrus wrote.

Dr. Andrus at her desk in Ojai

Jack Fay remembers his initial encounter with the red-haired dynamo. “In 1955, I first met Dr. Andrus at a City Council meeting, where I was representing an applicant for a land-use proposition, and she was there with her attorney, opposing my client, and it was a very contentious hearing, but not with her. I was just fine with her. I lost that case. She won it. Within a week, Andrus called me and said, ‘I wish you’d be my attorney.’ So I said, ‘Fine!'”

Little did I know what I was getting into. Dr. Andrus brought a large crew of people with her to Ojai from her former home in Glendale, including Ruth Lana, herself a former teacher. Ruth’s daughter, Lora, spent several years in Ojai, first as a student at Happy Valley School, then as an employee of the NRTA and AARP. “I remember opening these countless envelopes and shaking out the $2 [AARP membership fees] inside,” she said. The AARP grew from its first member in 1958 to about 400,000 in 1962, when the membership office was moved to Long Beach. The organization continued to be headquartered in Ojai until 1965, when the entire operation was moved first to Long Beach, then to Washington D.C.

Early residents of Grey Gables were attracted by Ethel’s vision of an active life of service, and so the Gables soon became an important asset to the community. Its residents served on local boards, tutored in the schools, taught classes at the Art Center and volunteered throughout the valley.

In 1959 the Ojai City Council, which had originally balked at the project, awarded Ethel Andrus and her Grey Gables residents a city proclamation honoring their many contributions to the community.

While she was busy lobbying politicians in Washington, D.C. (Lora Lana remembers her mother and Andrus living out of suitcases for weeks at a time), she also kept close touch with her people in Ojai. When a Nordhoff teacher, Herb Smith, and his wife were stricken with polio, Ethel spearheaded the fund-raising effort that paid for their house to be retrofitted for the wheelchair-bound couple.

Andrus cut quite a figure around town, says Anne Friend Thacher, who began working for both the NRTA and the AARP maintaining membership files. “No one called her Ethel. She had this striking red hair and was a very smart person.”

Dr. Andrus also brought her nephew, Lincoln Service, along with his young daughters, Barbara and Suzanne (Sandy) Andrus Service, to Ojai in 1954. The girls were seven and eight. Dr. Service served as the Gables’ medical staff. “We just loved Ojai,” Barbara says. “It was rural, and very beautiful, and very different from Glendale.” Even with Ojai’s laid-back country feel, Dr. Andrus insisted on proper decorum in dress and bearing. “One time she drove me down to Long Beach to go clothes shopping,” Sandy Service says. “We went into several stores where I would sit on the sofa and they brought out clothes for me to try. She would always pick these fancy silk suits. I said, ‘Nana, people in Ojai don’t dress like that.” She said, “A lady is a lady no matter where she lives.”

Thacher was a student at Happy Valley School at the time. Lora Lana was a year ahead of her. Thacher was promoted to secretary and continued to work for both organizations while a student at Berkeley. “They employed a lot of local people. The pay was pretty terrible,” she says. “One of my jobs was to correspond with people who had questions. One of the questions was, “How do you pronounce Ojai?”

Dr. Andrus was known for hiring young people. both to keep the former teachers in touch with youth, and also to allow the residents to use their wisdom and experience to guide young people. “Youth can and should be courted,” she wrote. “Youth will, in dividends of gratitude, pay high for the investment of the oldster’s time, interest and thoughtful attention.”

As the NRTA and AARP grew into national powerhouses, the local offices expanded. In 1954, the NRTA purchased Sycamore Lodge, a motel next to Grey Gables that fronted Grand Avenue; later, several apartments were added on the back and west side of the property. The Acacias nursing home was built in 1959.

Dr. Andrus set out the vision for the Acacias in an article for Modern Maturity in 1959, shortly after its purchase:

“The Acacias hopes to be more than a nursing facility, more than a convalescent home; it is a health center that will demonstrate the potency of helping older people discover the basis of their trouble and through care, friendly concern, and expert service find the right channels to recovery. The Acacias in its freshness and beauty of building and setting is in itself a strong factor in the attainment of this goal; its lines are restful; its colors refreshing; its furnishing modern and effective.”

Though she was instrumental in many causes of the day–working to end mandatory retirement and age-related discrimination, and to establish the now ubiquitous senior discounts–Dr. Andrus did so in an entirely non-adversarial manner. She didn’t lead marches, sit-ins, political campaigns, etc. It was all done through education, research, advocacy and programs by her own membership organizations.

Through the research arm of AARP, she exploded many commonly held myths, stereotypes and assumptions about aging. She used this new knowledge about aging to promote a new image of growing older and retirement … from the end of one’s creative life to the beginning, from isolation to involvement, from deterioration to continued growth, from a time to be feared to a time of opportunity and renewed productivity.

Leonard Davis and Dr. Andrus made a formidable team, lobbying tirelessly for the passage of Medicare in 1965.

Davis died at age 76 in 2001. Despite a few scrapes with regulators and Congressional investigative arms (he lost his lock on being the sole insurance broker for the AARP during the 1970s), he was a generous benefactor to many causes. In addition to the many millions he and his wife Sophie gave to universities, museums and cultural centers, he endowed the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, the first center in the country devoted to training medical staff to treat elderly patients.

Dr. Andrus died July 13, 1967, active to the end, mourned by many and replaced by none. Though she had unlocked the vast wealth held by retired people as they were brought out of isolation and into the mainstream of America, her personal fortune, according to Fay, was valued at less than $100,000.

She was eulogized by President Lyndon Johnson as well as by Ojai friends and neighbors. “In Ethel Percy Andrus,” he wrote, “humanity had a trusted 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.”

Ethel_Andrus_story in PDF.

Ethel Andrus: How One Woman Changed America

Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus a talk given to the Ojai Valley Museum by Craig Walker on May 1, 2011
Ethel Percy Andrus founded Grey Gables of Ojai, the National Retired Teachers Association, and the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP).

Perhaps you’ve seen the new AARP television commercial. It’s hard to miss if you watch CNN. The commercial opens with an interior shot of a dimly-lit farm structure; the narrator speaks:

“A chicken coop; the unlikely birthplace of a fundamental idea. It’s where Ethel Percy Andrus found a retired teacher living because she could afford nothing else. Ethel couldn’t ignore the clear need for health and financial security…and it inspired her to found AARP.”

Ethel Andrus founded AARP on the simple premise that no one should have to live in a chicken coop, that all Americans-including the elderly–should live independent, productive, and dignified lives.

What the commercial doesn’t mention is that Ethel Percy Andrus founded AARP while living here in Ojai. For several years, she ran AARP from her offices at Grey Gables–another one of her innovative ideas. Grey Gables of Ojai, established by Andrus in 1954, was one of America’s first retirement communities.

Ethel Percy Andrus believed strongly in the power of numbers. All of her organizational efforts were guided by three principles: collective purpose, collective voice, and collective purchasing power. By the time she died in 1967, AARP had grown to 1.2 million members. Today, AARP (now headquartered in Washington DC) has over 40 million members; it is the second largest membership organization in America after the Catholic Church. AARP magazine (which Ethel created, and edited for many years) has three times the circulation of any other American magazine-with over 35 million readers! Because of these numbers, AARP has become one of the most powerful research, advocacy, and consumer organizations in America!

But Ethel Andrus did so much more than just create an organization! Through her tireless efforts, she changed the lives of America’s senior citizens and, more importantly, she changed the way society views retirement and aging. If your life has not already benefited from the work of Ethel Percy Andrus…it will!

Ethel Andrus also believed in the power of years. She believed the elderly are uniquely qualified by their longevity and their retirement to bring meaningful change to society. She exemplified this through her own life. Ethel founded the National Retired Teachers Association when she was 63; she moved to Ojai and founded Grey Gables when she was 70;…and she founded AARP when she was 74! After that, she went on numerous speaking tours, wrote countless editorials, met with presidents, and lobbied Congress and state legislatures. All of this…came after retiring from a distinguished 40-year career in education! …In 1993 Ethel Andrus was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame–alongside her mentor, Jane Addams, and many other important American women like Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Certainly, Ethel Percy Andrus qualifies as one of Ojai’s most accomplished, influential, and famous residents! She was a social reformer and civil rights leader of national importance, who did much of her significant work here in Ojai. And yet, her name is seldom mentioned in listings of important Ojai residents. Nor is it widely known that Ojai is the birthplace of AARP–an organization that has improved the lives of so many Americans. This talk is an attempt to correct these oversights-and to pay tribute to a truly remarkable woman!
Ethel Percy Andrus was born in San Francisco in 1884, but grew up in Chicago. She decided at an early age to dedicate her life to serving others. She credits her father for that decision; he taught her that everyone should do good somewhere in the world, and that the greatest rewards in life come when one serves others. Ethel’s personal motto was “To Serve, Not to Be Served,” which is still the motto of AARP.

In 1903, at the age of 18, she earned her bachelors degree from the University of Chicago and began teaching English at the Lewis Institute.

During Ethel’s years teaching in Chicago–from 1903 to 1910-she volunteered at Hull House, a “settlement house” founded by Jane Addams to help low-income European immigrants living on Chicago’s east side. In a settlement house, social workers live in the community, learning first hand the needs of the residents while providing them with educational, medical, and counseling services. Ethel’s work with Jane Addams at Hull House would lay the foundation for her future work as a high school principal, and her later work improving the lives of America’s senior citizens.

In 1910, Ethel and her family moved back to California because of her father’s poor health. Ethel’s first teaching job in California was at Santa Paula High School. In 1916 she was offered an assistant principal position at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles. When the principal quit the following year, Ethel was given the job. This made Ethel Percy Andrus the first woman principal of a large, urban high school in California! She would serve in that position for the next 28 years.

At the time, East Los Angeles High School was a large school with one of the highest dropout and juvenile delinquency rates in the country. Like Hull House, it was located in an area populated by poor immigrants, representing a range of races and ethnicities. Ethel took on the challenge–not just of teaching subjects–but of transforming lives.

As an English teacher, Ethel Andrus knew the power of words, and so she used words to instill dignity and hope into her students and their families. She built a gateway into the school, with a single word written in large, wrought iron letters overhead: “Opportunity”. Every student, as they entered the school, was reminded that education was an opportunity for them to better their lives and the lives of others.

“In an age of hard-nosed, gruff male principals,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “[Ethel Andrus] might have passed for Marian the Librarian. She was a red-haired, bespectacled, soft-spoken educator… whose success came from building close relationships with both teachers and students. A former teacher once said of her: ‘When you spent time with Ethel, you felt you’d had a drink of strong, heady wine.’ Single and childless, Ethel served as a mother figure to many of her students and a friend to others. She once said, ‘I never met a child who couldn’t embrace me.’ She treated pupils with firmness and affection that produced extraordinary results.” One unruly student reported years later, “Somehow…you found yourself acting the way she wanted you to!” (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 14, 2003)

Another former student, the actor Robert Preston, recalled: “The big iron scroll on the Abraham Lincoln High School gate through which we passed read: ‘Opportunity’. Isn’t it amazing that we didn’t know until we walked out: Opportunity had red hair!”

Ethel Andrus taught her students to take pride in their family heritage. Her goal was [quote] “to bring each student a sense of his own worth by treating him with dignity and respect, by honoring his racial background not as a picturesque oddity, but as a valued contribution in the tapestry of American life.” She instituted school activities that built leadership skills while breaking down cultural barriers. She established a program of community service that instilled self-esteem and confidence through service to others. As a result, the school’s delinquency and drop-out rates fell dramatically. The Los Angeles County Juvenile Court awarded Andrus and her school a special award for success in youth crime prevention. In 1940, the National Education Association published her programs as a model for other schools to follow in reducing delinquency and racial/ethnic conflict.

Andrus’ efforts to improve the lives of her students didn’t stop at the school gate; she worked to improve the community as well. Ethel was responsible for renaming the neighborhood “Lincoln Heights” and its park, “Lincoln Park”. Working with business leaders, she established Lincoln High School as a community center that reached out to immigrant families through their children. She started an Opportunity School for Adults, which raised the educational level and English skills of parents and other adults living in the neighborhood.

To set an example, Ethel went back to school herself, furthering her own knowledge as an educator. In 1930 she received her doctorate from the University of Southern California–one of the first women to do so. She then taught education classes at UCLA, USC, and Stanford during summer vacations-inspiring a whole generation of future teachers. Not only was she the first woman high school principal in California, she helped found the California Association of Secondary School Administrators and served as its first woman president.

In 1944-after 40 years in education with 28 years as principal of Lincoln High School-Ethel Andrus retired to care for her ill mother. She was 60 years old. Had she done nothing further in life, she would still be remembered as a noted educator and humanitarian. But Ethel’s mother inspired her to take up the cause of others in her retirement. “You thought your work was done when you gave up youngsters,” her mother told her, “but it’s only the beginning.” How true that would turn out to be!

Ethel volunteered with the Southern Section of the California Retired Teachers Association. She was given the position of Director of Welfare, which monitored the living conditions of retired teachers. Ethel took an interest in this because, when she retired as a principal, she discovered her pension was only $60 a month! Although she had money of her own, she found it hard to believe that a retired teacher could survive on just $60 a month!

One day she was talking with a local grocer near Los Angeles. He asked if she would check on an old woman he hadn’t seen for several days; he gave Ethel the woman’s address. The people who lived there didn’t recognize the name, but then said, “Oh, you must mean the old woman living out back.” That’s when Ethel found a former teacher living in a chicken coop. The woman was gravely ill, but had no money to visit a doctor. It was a moment that would change the life of Ethel Percy Andrus–and the lives of America’s elderly. Ethel was known for rarely expressing anger, but whenever she told that story-even years later–she could barely control herself. It angered her that society would allow retired teachers to live like that…and she decided to do something about it

The first thing she did was to organize retired teachers on a national level. In 1947 she founded the National Retired Teachers Association, with the goal of [in her words] “putting dignity back into the life of the penniless former teacher.” Ethel Andrus’ vision for retired teachers was captured in three words: independence, dignity, and purpose. One of her first projects as NRTA President was to find an insurance company that would offer medical insurance to NRTA members. In 1947 most jobs had a mandatory retirement age of 65, and it was virtually impossible for retirees to purchase health coverage; Medicare would not be established for another 18 years. Ethel hoped that with a large, national organization, she could secure a group policy. Yet, even with 20,000 members (and growing), she was turned down by over 40 insurance companies. The elderly, she was told, were uninsurable. As an alternative, Andrus decided to create a chain of 15 NRTA-sponsored retirement communities that would include medical and nursing home care. She began raising funds and started searching for a location to establish the first one–which would serve as the prototype for the others.

In 1953 she was on a speaking tour of California schools; after her talk she would ask each faculty member to contribute $2 toward the retirement home fund. One stop was Nordhoff High School here in Ojai. The morning after her presentation she spied a large, three-story house for sale on the corner of Montgomery and Grand; already named “Grey Gables”, it had several small apartments, common living areas, a library, and a large music hall. It even boasted Ojai’s first elevator! The former owner had designed it as a cultural center and a boarding house for working teachers.

Ethel Andrus applied to buy Grey Gables, which would serve both as a model retirement community and the NRTA’s headquarters. The Ojai city council at first refused to approve her “retirement home”. (We can only guess what images arose in their minds when they heard the words “retirement home”.) But Ethel Andrus, with her natural charisma and her soft-spoken but firm manner, persuaded the Council, and they reluctantly approved the project. Like the unruly boys at Lincoln High School, “somehow”…they found themselves acting the way she wanted them to!

At first, Grey Gables was just the large, three-story house along Montgomery Street north of Grand. In 1954, she purchased Sycamore Lodge, a motel next to Grey Gables that fronted Grand Avenue; later, several apartments were added on the back and west side of the property. The Acacias nursing home was built in 1959. Early residents of Grey Gables were attracted by Ethel’s vision of an active life of service, and so the Gables soon became an important asset to the community. Its residents served on local boards, tutored in the schools, taught classes at the Art Center, and volunteered throughout the valley. In 1959 the Ojai city council-which had originally balked at the project-awarded Ethel Andrus and her Grey Gables residents a city proclamation honoring their many contributions to the community

At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the NRTA exhibit featured a large, 3-dimensional model of Grey Gables; it was promoted as the future of retirement living in America. With its attractive buildings, lush gardens, swimming pool, travel programs, on-site medical facilities, and volunteer opportunities within the local community, Grey Gables became a model for future retirement homes across America.

A small house next to Grey Gables served as the headquarters for the NRTA. Ethel Andrus asked several former colleagues to move to Ojai to serve on the NRTA Board and help run the organization. One such person was Ed Wenig, who had been the drama teacher at Lincoln High School. Ed became one of Ojai’s first historians, and was instrumental in stopping the freeway into the valley.

In 1956, two years after founding Grey Gables, Ethel Andrus finally located an insurance broker who would write health policies for NRTA members. That man was Leonard Davis, a small-time insurance broker from Poughkeepsie, New York. Just as Ethel predicted, membership in NRTA multiplied as retired teachers, desperate for health insurance, joined the NRTA. The new NRTA Health Plan was a huge success!

It wasn’t long, however, before Ethel began hearing from other retirees, begging her to create a plan for them.
In 1958, Ethel met with Leonard Davis and her Ojai attorney-Jack Fay-at the Ojai Valley Inn. Over dinner they outlined a new organization that would represent-and insure-any retiree 65 years of age or over. Later that year, Jack Fay filed incorporation papers for the American Association of Retired Persons. At 74, Ethel was now president of two national organizations–and Director of Grey Gables. In addition, she started a magazine for AARP-Modern Maturity-which she both published and edited; her spirited editorials soon became the voice of America’s seniors. With a small staff, she ran both national organizations from her offices at Grey Gables in Ojai.
In 1963, when AARP and NRTA reached a combined membership of over 400,000 members, Ethel moved their administrative offices to Long Beach, but kept the membership operations in Ojai. From 1963 until 1967, she divided her time between Ojai and Long Beach. Of course, much of her work involved traveling to Washington DC and various state capitals to advocate for the elderly. For all this she took no pay.

Her partner, Leonard Davis, formed his own insurance company, Colonial Penn, which offered low-cost health insurance to all AARP members. Needless to say, his association with AARP turned into a goldmine. After paying AARP a royalty for each policy sold, Leonard Davis and Colonial Penn reaped huge profits. At one point Davis appeared in Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. But, Ethel Percy Andrus’ spirit of selfless service and giving must have affected him, too, for he became one of America’s great philanthropists. One of his projects was to expand Ethel’s work in researching the needs and capabilities of the elderly. In 1973 he established the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Research Center at USC. Today, it is the oldest and largest gerontology research center in America.

While Ethel Andrus was AARP president, the organization began offering many other important benefits to its members: She set up a mail-order discount prescription drug service; she pioneered the concept of senior group travel; she negotiated discounts for AARP members at restaurants, hotels, and car rental businesses. (So popular were these discounts that now most businesses offer senior discounts regardless of AARP membership!) In 1963 she founded the Institute for Lifelong Learning to provide classes and seminars focused on the interests and needs of retired persons. She also turned AARP into a nationwide volunteer organization…today, over 168,000 AARP volunteers assist seniors with tax preparation, teach computer skills, instruct driving refresher courses, and much more.

Although AARP is non-partisan, and doesn’t support political campaigns, it has a powerful presence in Washington DC and the state capitals. It lobbies on issues that are important to older Americans–and is supported in its lobbying efforts by its large membership base; nearly one in five voters are AARP members! During her years as leader and spokesperson for AARP, Ethel Andrus scored many important legislative victories. She helped pass Medicare and Medicaid; she also improved Social Security, secured tax benefits for seniors, instituted cost-of-living increases for pensions, outlawed mandatory retirement, and ended discrimination against the elderly. These are all things we take for granted today, but they were not easy victories at the time.

For all of her success in building two national organizations, Ethel Percy Andrus’ most important achievement was in changing America’s image of retirement.

“As it is,” Ethel observed in 1958, “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. Someday, the retired citizens of this country will have the dignity they deserve.”

In numerous editorials and speeches Ethel Andrus promoted retirement as the beginning of one’s creative life–not the end of it. “Creative energy is ageless,” she would say; it is focusing on ourselves and our own problems that defeats us. Retirement is an opportunity to move beyond ourselves by serving the needs of others and, in so doing, be fulfilled as human beings. She urged seniors, “Retire, not from–but to service!

Through her dedicated efforts, Ethel Andrus brought millions of retirees out of their isolation and back into the mainstream of American life. She encouraged these retirees to find part-time jobs, go back to school, travel, get involved, and most of all to volunteer in their communities. She built a gateway over the entrance to retirement and framed it with a single word: “Opportunity”.

When Ethel Percy Andrus died in 1967, she was interred in a small garden at Ivy Lawn Cemetery in Ventura; one of many eulogies was written by the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson:

“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 trusted 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.”

Those of us who grew up in Ojai during the 50s and 60s probably rode our bikes by Grey Gables several times a week. Little did we know that inside a team of elderly retirees, led by an 80 year-old dynamo, was quietly revolutionizing retirement in America. Little did we know that their accomplishments would give us the opportunity to live the independent, productive, and dignified retirement Ethel Percy Andrus envisioned over 60 years ago. Little did we know… “Opportunity had red hair!”

For a more detailed history of Dr. Andrus and AARP, read “The Age of Reformation: Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus and the Founding of AARP” on this site.