Ties That Bind - Part III
Ojai's paradox as first home of AARP
By Bret Bradigan
On an otherwise unremarkable
evening in 1956, the largest nongovernmental organization in
the country was born at the Ojai Valley Inn. Jack Fay is the
only survivor of the six people who were present at the time,
and was its legal counsel for years.
The American Association of Retired Persons was founded by a
retired Los Angeles school teacher and administrator named Dr.
Ethel Percy Andrus, who was head of the National Retired Teachers
Association. "Dr. Andrus found the NRTA too restrictive,"said
Fay, a longtime Ojai councilperson and city lawyer. "She
was truly a remarkable person, with a real vision."
Another person present at that meeting was insurance agent Leonard
Davis "who was looking to be first to sell health insurance
to senior citizens. That just wasn't done in those days,"
Fay said. Andrus ran AARP until her death in 1967. The membership
office, even when those membership rolls ran into the hundreds
of thousands, was on Montgomery Street at Grey Gables retirement
home. AARP has grown to 35 million members, and is now headquartered
in Washington, D.C.
Ray Johnson, 77, a retired school teacher and administrator himself,
is a member of the AARP, as well as several other national organizations.
Much of his volunteer effort, however, is spent on the home front.
One day each year, Johnson rises at 4 a.m. and until 7 p.m. flips
tri-tip roasts over glowing embers of oak. He and his wife, Pat,
help with the set-up, the serving and the cleanup.
They are among the first to arrive and the last to leave.
The Ojai United Methodist Church's annual barbecue is described
by "some people as the best barbecue in town," but
not by Johnson, who, though glints of pride escape the shades
of humility over his eyes, said, "I don't know if that's
true. I like 'em all."
The church has a congregation that numbers in the few hundreds.
Johnson belongs to plenty of other organizations, many of them
national, such as Trout Unlimited, or Federation of Fly Fishers,
with membership running into the millions. But the more local
the organization is, the more time it requires of him.
Every town has its Ray Johnsons, people who show up and put their
shoulder to the wheel to make a community run. Ojai has them
by the hundreds.
In the year 2000, according to Retired and Senior Volunteer Program
coordinator Kathleen Tarrats, more than 650 senior volunteers
donated 90,000 hours at 47 workstations, which included everything
from the school district to the Krotona Bookstore.
But as the generations inevitably fold into the future, the most
active and engaged generation in American history may take with
them its irreplaceable store of social capital. The implications
for the nation, as for Ojai, are critical to understand for anyone
who appreciates Ojai's quality of life, and has an awareness
of the tremendous amount of social capital it takes to create
Education reformer L.J. Hanifan devised the term "social
capital" to describe "those tangible substances that
count for most in the daily lives among individuals and families
who make up a social unit ... The individual is helpless socially,
if left to himself ... If he comes into contact with his neighbor,
and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation
of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs
and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial
improvement in living conditions in the whole community."
One of the arguments made against Robert D. Putnam's book, "Bowling
Alone," is that this apparent decline of social capital
at the local level is balanced by greater involvement at the
national level, through membership groups.
Putnam argues that there are extensive differences between church
barbecues and paying dues to mailing list memberships. While
members of groups such as AARP, Sierra Club or National Rifle
Association find strength in numbers in the centers of power
such as Sacramento or Washington, D.C., these associations have
less impact where people live.
The numbers of these public-interest groups may proliferate,
but few have any local chapters or presence. In one study from
the early 1970s, two-thirds of the top 83 groups had no local
chapters whatever. "By comparison, there are 7,000 local
Rotary chapters in America, to take a typical 'old fashioned'
chapter-based civic organization. In other words, Rotary alone
has nearly twice as many chapters as all 83 public-interest groups
combined," wrote Putnam.
"But membership in good standing in the AARP requires only
a few seconds annually - as long as it takes to sign a check."
"For the vast majority of their members, the only act of
membership consists of in writing a check for dues or occasionally
reading a newsletter. Few ever attend any meetings of such organizations
- many never have meetings at all - and most members are unlikely
ever to knowingly encounter any other member ... their ties are
to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals,
but not to each other."
Ray Johnson believes that all these organizations serve a role.
For instance, his ability in lobbying legislators to pass favorable
laws, or stop bad ones, is significantly less than that of someone
who does it for a living, with their rolodex full of influential
contacts. But on the other hand, he was, as were many members
of his generation, shaped by a series of world-shaking events
that formed their concept of collective action.
The people who grew up during the Great Depression, like Johnson,
also won World War II. And when they returned from the devastation
of that war, and the near collapse of the American economy that
preceded it, they turned their battle-hardened energies to the
problems that confronted them at home - racism and inequality.
By the mid-1960s, it seemed that earnest intention alone could
cure the world's ills. That optimism may have foundered in the
morass of Vietnam and Watergate, Putnam learned - which fed the
nation's insecurities about the effectiveness of collective action.
As a teacher and administrator himself, Johnson watched these
shifts in attitude manifest in the classroom. "People expect
teachers to do everything for their kids," he said. "They
are quick to criticize, but not to help."
Some of those students he's helped would agree.
Chatel Powell, a sophomore at Chaparral High School, said, "People
are more selfish these days. It's a fend-for-yourself type of
thing. In the old days, people had to pull together or they wouldn't
That was the lesson Johnson learned during the Great Depression.
"You don't survive unless you get along with people."
Next: People who are engaged
in their community as youth are more likely to be engaged when
they reach adulthood. And there are benefits to such altruism.
The Ojai Valley News
to the news
GABLES OF OJAI, an assisted living home, was the first home of
the American Association of Retired Persons.