Last month’s SHINE mural festival has been all the talk of St. Petersburg residents and visitors, but if you don’t think AARP when you think of the city’s burgeoning mural scene, you don’t know … Ethel.
Among the many new spray-painted artworks gracing the city’s walls, one in particular is my favorite. On the 8th Street side of the Morean Arts Center, local star muralist Derek Donnelly has painted “Keep on Cruisin’ (Xtreme Ethel)” on the wall of the elevated breezeway over the alley that runs behind the center. (Trust me, you can’t miss it.) The mural of a “skating Granny” (as one commenter called her) is a playful reference to the rich and little-known history of AARP’s relationship with St. Petersburg as well as an acknowledgement of the ways the city, the mission-driven membership organization, and aging itself have changed since AARP’s beginning.
Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus never actually skateboarded as far as we can tell, but she wasn’t afraid to break barriers. After a career as the first female school principal in the state of California, Dr. Andrus retired to care for her ailing mother. In “retirement,” Dr. Andrus saw a society that put too many talented, valuable older people “out to pasture” and founded first the National Retired Teachers Association in 1947 at age 63 followed by the (then) American Association of Retired Persons in 1958. Her mission was to empower older Americans to continue to pursue their passions with independence, dignity and purpose.
From the earliest days, St. Petersburg played a central role in AARP’s development. The first of the association’s magazines, then called Modern Maturity (and now the largest circulation magazine in the nation), promoted St. Petersburg as a destination for AARP members because of its climate, culture and the AARP Hospitality House, a gathering place for AARP members.
Until the 1970s, the Hospitality House stood on Central Avenue at the site where a 41-story condo and hotel development is now planned. When AARP members suffering from the burden of high drug prices led Dr. Andrus to form a mail-order pharmacy, it was based in the same location.
And when she orchestrated the first White House Conference on Aging, she conducted the “dry run” planning sessions in, you guessed it, St. Pete. Whether she was promoting fun, providing service, or planning advocacy on behalf of older Americans, the Sunshine City was a central base of operations.
St. Petersburg has changed a great deal since then. The rows of Green Benches are long gone, and now hotspots like Green Bench Brewery attract crowds of Millennials, Boomers and Gen Xers in between. A city once known best as the site of the movie “Cocoon” now stands atop numerous lists as a thriving arts community and desirable location for tourists and relocating Millenials and Boomers. As new developments dot the landscape and the inverted pyramid Pier gives way to make room for a new Pier Park, St. Pete’s future looks bright.
Aging is a lot different from what it used to be, too. Thanks to advances in health care, a generational shift change as Boomers (and now the first Gen Xers) reach their 50s, and the progress wrought by the work of Dr. Andrus and many others, increasingly people are reaching a point in life their parents never imagined: free of child-rearing duties and far from done making their mark in the world, older Americans are diving into new waters, starting new careers, rekindling old relationships and reimagining their futures. If you spend time downtown, you’ll even see some gray-haired skateboarders.
AARP has changed a lot too. With a healthy and growing share of our members still in the workforce (many indefinitely), we long ago dropped the reference to retirement in our full name and now simply go by “AARP.” AARP is working in Tampa Bay to help our members engage with the area’s vibrant and evolving culture. As one part of that effort, we’re working to pave the way for St. Petersburg to join the AARP/World Health Organization Age-Friendly Network of Communities.
We’re helping people reconnect to their passions and purpose through our Life Reimagined sessions in conjunction with Encore Tampa Bay. And we’re helping the many new transplants connect with the real Tampa Bay through meetups and activities at cultural centerpieces like the Dali Museum, Museum of Fine Arts and Morean Arts Center.
So in a way, “Xtreme Ethel” is not such a fanciful invention after all. Donnelly’s mural brings the spirit of Dr. Andrus back to a city she loved to show a new generation of residents how to live their best lives while disrupting what it means to age.
Keep on cruisin’, Ethel.
Jeff Johnson is state director for Florida AARP.