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An Overlooked Heroine

A true heroine. I am thinking of all the teachers who also need to be celebrated. Thank you for your dedication and service.

Ethel Percy Andrus was born on September 21, 1881, in San Francisco, California. While she was born in the 19th century, she became a transformer of the 20th century. 

From a very early age, her parents, George and Lucretia, instilled a love of learning, and a progressive spirit, in both Ethel and her older sister, Maude. When Ethel was five years old her parents moved to Chicago, where George enrolled in law school and Maude and Ethyl began their schooling.

This was a tumultuous time in Chicago when the Pullman Strike of 1894 caused vast uprisings and complete chaos with federal troops Cushing the railroad workers. There were enormous gaps between the Gilded Age millionaires and the poor. Even as a very young girl, Ethyl saw this gap. She noticed those who were wealthy and were attempting to spread wealth and help those less fortunate. In particular, Peter Cooper, a wealthy industrialist and inventor, who turned philanthropist helping those less fortunate. He founded New York college which offered free night classes to everyone, regardless of race, gender or background. She said what impressed her most was, “his love for, and service to folks who he might never have known.” This time in her life set the trajectory for the rest of her life. 

Ethel was one of the very few women attending college in 1900. She spent a year at the University of Chicago, then attended the innovative Lewis Institute on Chicago’s West Side. After earning a four-year degree, she taught English and German at Lewis Institute for seven years. 

While teaching at Lewis Institute, Ethel was introduced to Hull House, a settlement house co-founded by Jane Adams. It was in a poverty-stricken neighborhood where immigrants (Italian, Irish, German, Greek, Bohemian, Russian, and Polish) could find not only housing but support. Hull House offered night classes for adults. She said, “I learned there to know life intimately and to value folks of different races and creeds.” 

Ethel said her life in Chicago was wonderful, but it ended in 1909 when both she and her father became ill. The family relocated to a small town in Southern California, Santa Paula, so they could recover (the illness was not specified). They believed it the milder climate would help. Ethel recovered but her father grew more seriously ill with a diagnosis of a progressive disease, atrophy of the optic nerve.

Ethel accepted a position teaching English at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. In 1916 she became principal of the Abraham Lincoln High School in East Los Angeles, making her the first woman to run a large urban high school n California. The student population was not only large, 1,000 students, but diverse and multilingual. Modeling the atmosphere she witness at Hull House some years prior, she encouraged students to embrace learning, be excited about it, in an open and very welcoming setting. One of Ethel’s first official acts was to have the word “OPPORTUNITY” installed over the entrance gate.

“Our student body became a part of the larger social movements of Lincoln Heights. Our athletes became the coaches and sponsors of their respective elementary schools. Training rules kept prospective delinquents in bed at bedtime to qualify,” she wrote. “Recognition for civic performance satisfied and fed the drives of youth, which like age, wants to be needed, to be praised and be ‘a member of a team.’”Ethel organized sports programs and a wide range of social activities and clubs to make learning more exciting for students, as well as vocational and traditional classes. Because she wanted to include the entire family, they opened the school in the evenings so adults could also take classes.   

Ethel continued her education as well during this time earning a master’s degree from the University of Southern California (USC) and a PhD from USC’s school of education. After twenty-eight years as a devoted principal at Lincoln, she retired at 62. Her father had died years earlier, but her mother was now ill and needed her care. While caring for her beloved mother, Ethyl remained involved with issues of teachers and their welfare. One of her major focuses was pensions. Teachers received an average of $40 a month when they retired, and no health insurance, which left them “without adequate funds to keep life, much less live in dignity.”  

Upon the recovery of her mother, Ethel jumped right back into service, this tie her focus was on older members of the population. Her mother was in her 90s and supported Ethel’s efforts with these words: “I have been thinking a great deal lately about old age. Old age, Ethel, needs care as youth needs care, but it needs something more. It needs the desire to live, to continue planning and striving hopefully, to keep working at something worthwhile, and then when, at last, old age becomes dependent, it needs someone to still care or, if there is no one to care, there should be community care, which can make it easy to help those who now cannot help themselves keep their dignity and their self-respect.”

Ethel was now in her mid sixties, and she launched herself full speed ahead on a mission to improve the lives of and improve opportunities for elders. She volunteered with the California Retired Teachers Association. She learned of an older woman who came to town occasionally, who needed food, eyeglasses, and dentures. Ethel embarked on a visit to the woman on a cold and drizzly day. What she found surprised her: a neat and sizable bungalow. When she knocked, no one answered, so she inquired of a neighbor about the woman she sought. The neighbor directed her to go “out back.” She was aghast when she discovered that “out back” was a chicken coop where this woman, a retired teacher, was living!  

Ethel knocked on the door of the windowless shack, and the occupant, dressed in a tattered coat, opened it. Ethel introduced herself and upon hearing the name of the woman, she recognized her as a retired Spanish teacher of distinction. Ethel invited her to sit in the car, out of the rain, and the woman’s story unfolded. The Great Depression had diminished her property and with a $40 a month pension and no health care, she could not afford to maintain it. She said she felt fortunate to have the chicken coop. 

Ethel realized that it wasn’t just retired teachers who were struggling. She continued her work for the betterment of the lives of elders and to that end. In 1947, she organized the National Retired Teachers Association and obtained decent living standards and affordable health care for them. Medicare had not been established at that time and most insurance companies saw older people as a costly risk. Ethel was turned down by forty-two insurance companies before she found one willing to take a chance. In 1958 Ethel created another organization, the American Association of Retired People, AARP, serving the needs of all. The motto of AARP is “To serve, not to be served.” 

Ethyl battled age discrimination and fought for the basic security for all people as they aged. She modeled for us that a single individual can make life better for millions.

Thank you, Dr. Ethel Andrus. 


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