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10 Surprising Facts about America's Champions of Aging

Older Americans Hall of Fame

Celebrating May as Older Americans Month offers the perfect time to remember leaders who helped to build a nation that respects and protects its older citizens. A new AARP website feature called Champions of Aging does precisely that.

All 10 made contributions that changed America for the better, and created opportunities for those in their 50s, 60s and beyond to lead healthier, more financially secure, and more meaningful and enjoyable lives.

Some of the champions' names are better know than others, but we dug up surprising facts about each of them:

  1. Before founding AARP, Ethel Percy Andrus taught high school in Los Angeles. One of her students was Robert Preston, who would go on to become an actor best known for his role in The Music Man. When Andrus died in 1967, Preston joined nearly a thousand of her former students in a gathering to pay tribute to her.
  2. Robert M. Ball, who served as Social Security Administration chief under three presidents and helped LBJ to create the Medicare system, helped save Social Security from being abolished by congressional opponents in the 1950s. He wrangled an appointment to the White House's study group on Social Security, which was loaded with critics of the program, and changed so many minds that, in the end, President Eisenhower led an expansion of benefits.
  3. When Senior Olympics founder Warren W. Blaney launched his first "Senior Olympix" in 1970, he entered in the 60-and-over triple jump and actually won the event, with a leap of 21 feet 2½ inches.
  4. Gerontologist Robert N. Butler, who promoted the notion of aging as a normal stage of life rather than an affliction, provided personal proof of his view that older people could lead productive lives by continuing to work 60-hour weeks into his 80s. "I can't imagine being retired," he explained. "There's too much to do."
  5. Elma Holder, who led the fight to reform nursing homes and curb neglect and abuse, retired in 2002 and left Washington, D.C., for her home state of Oklahoma to care for her own elderly mother.
  6. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who engineered the passage of Medicare in 1965, overcame the American Medical Association's opposition by summoning its leaders to the White House for a meeting and, with a combination of flattery and intimidation, persuading them to abandon a threatened boycott.
  7. Maggie Kuhn, the flamboyant Gray Panthers founder, once led a column of 1,00o protesters who encircled the White House to demand access to a 1971 presidential conference on aging. Police on horseback rode right into the melee, knocking down Kuhn - who got right back up and continued protesting.
  8. Patrick V. McNamara, a Democratic senator from Michigan who helped create the Medicare system, chaired the first congressional inquiry into the problems of the elderly in 1959.
  9. Claude Pepper became known as "Mr. Senior Citizen" because of his determination to protect programs for the elderly from cutbacks during his service in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. He predicted his political career at age 10, when he carved "Claude Pepper, U.S. Senator" into a tree trunk.
  10. Economist Edwin E. Witte, known as the "father of Social Security," also reportedly possessed an encyclopedic recall of obscure Major League Baseball statistics.


Here's a newsreel clip of LBJ signing Medicare into law in 1965, and helping former President Harry Truman enroll in the program.

Also of Interest


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Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Alain Keler/Sygma/Corbis; Wisconsin Historical Society; Social Security Administration; Ed Clark/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images; AARP; Ed Clark/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images; Jim Harrison/The Heinz Awards; Worth Blaney; Shepard Sherbell/Saba/Corbis; International Longevity Center


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