Born in San Francisco, California in 1884, Ethel Percy Andrus and her family moved to Chicago when she was a child.
Andrus earned a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from the University of Chicago and began teaching classes for Hull House and Chicago Commons, settlement houses in Chicago.
She and her family eventually returned to California where Andrus taught at Santa Paula High School and Manual Arts High School. She moved to East Los Angeles High School where she was appointed principal. Andrus was the first woman high school principal in California. She changed the name of the school to Abraham Lincoln High School in an attempt to incorporate more of a sense of pride among the student body.
Although a small redhead, Andrus made a big impact at Abraham Lincoln High School. While there, she offered night adult education for parents, most of whom were immigrants.
A student in a school play died when her costume ignited from a sparkler used in the production. Andrus ran after the student when she ran from the building, attempting to douse the flames with her own coat. Andrus and others campaigned to have flammable materials banned from stage and to have a teacher onstage at all times during performances.
Concerned about some of her retired teacher friends, Andrus helped form the Foundation to Assist California Teachers. Through this organization, a Teachers’ Home was opened in Inglewood to help care for those teachers whose pensions were too small for them to subsist on. This organization also refurbished an old home for 19 more retired teachers.
Andrus was also concerned about the young, particularly the students in her school. She organized a community outreach program, the Junior Coordinating Council, where young girls volunteered at County Hospital and young boys ran errands for shut-ins.
Thanks to the firmness and affection Andrus afforded the students at Abraham Lincoln High School, delinquency dropped so drastically that the school and its principal were awarded a citation from a Juvenile Court judge.
And she did all this while obtaining a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) from University of Southern California and caring for an ailing mother.
She also volunteered for the California Retired Teachers Association where she learned that many retired teachers had no health insurance and small pensions. Because of this, Andrus founded the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA) in 1947.
The formation of this organization was to the creation of Medicare in 1965. There was no health care or health insurance programs for people over age 65. Andrus appealed to numerous health insurance companies to offer group health insurance to retired educators, but her pleas fell upon deaf ears. Andrus persisted in her search until she finally found one company willing to develop a health care coverage plan for members of NRTA.
As the popularity of this coverage grew, Andrus realized that people who were retired from other careers could benefit from the health insurance program. She then established the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) through which health insurance could be offered to all retirees
With some of her own money, Andrus purchased two buildings which were remodeled and named the Grey Gables Retirement Community for Teachers. It was here that the seeds for the AARP began to take root. Andrus conducted meetings and prepped the first issues of Modern Maturity, the forerunner of The AARP Magazine.
Today, AARP boasts over 40 million members, with offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Andrus died in 1967 at the age of 83. One of her former students, actor Robert Preston, said, “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.” 
Andrus’s personal motto, “To serve, not to be served” became the motto of the AARP. More than just a motto: Ethel Percy Andrus lived it.
 Los Angeles Times