The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Shirley R. Brussell Was a Champion for Employment Opportunities for Older People

Shirley Brussell

Shirley R. (Toubus) Brussell, AB ’41, EX, ’42, 94, died in October 2014. A pioneer in older adult employment and equal treatment, she was the founding executive director of the National Able Network (Ability Based on Long Experience).

She was also a Life Member of the SSA Visiting Committee, and recipient of the Edith Abbott Award for Professional Achievement.

Upon accepting the Edith Abbott Award in 1993, Brussell summarized her motivations for “relentlessly hounding organizations” on behalf of employment opportunities for older persons, “Doors of opportunity have been closed because a person’s hair was grey, or she had a few character lines in her face. I have seen the definition of an older worker change from 65 to 55. Why do we accord so much respect to senators and congressmen who have accumulated years of hammering out bills? Because experience works. And this is the reason I entered the field of employment for older workers.”

She enrolled in SSA in 1941 when legendary social work educators such as Edith and Grace Abbott, Sophonisba Breckinridge and Wayne McMillan were teaching, though her family insisted Brussell attend secretarial school.

After more than a year of graduate studies during which she was introduced to labor issues, Brussell took an internship in Washington, D.C. in 1942 as a personnel administrator in the office of the Secretary of War, during which she made site visits to weapons factories in order to write job descriptions for personnel needed to operate tanks and bazookas. Brussell attempted to return to the University as a PhD student of human development, but was denied admission ironically, according to Brussell, because she was 55 years old at the time.

Turning her attention to professional work advocating for employment for older persons, Brussell founded Operation Able in 1977 (now the National Able Network) with funding from the Chicago Community Trust with a mandate to help older job-seekers find employment and help employers find workers. The organization grew to six locations in the city of Chicago and suburbs, a budget of $6 million, and a staff of 200 administering myriad training, vocational, and career programs for employers and job-seekers. Brussell led Operation Able into her 80s and was fond of reminding people who suggested she retire, “Experience works, and 55 is the speed limit, not the age limit.”