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Admirers celebrate 114th birthday of Edie Ceccarelli of Willits, 12th oldest living person on Earth

WILLITS — This town in the heart of Mendocino County threw a grand parade Saturday for a dear, locally acclaimed Willits native who marked an achievement that distinguishes her – highly so – among the nearly 8 billion people currently alive.

Edith “Edie” Ceccarelli on Saturday turned 114 years old. Scientists who study super-longevity say their research shows that if she isn’t the 12th oldest person on Earth, she’s close to it.

“Thank you,” the fastidiously groomed, classically lovely Ceccarelli said softly. She waved from a chair on the porch of a balloon-festooned Willits care home toward a COVID-distanced procession of police cars, fire trucks, kids on horses, motorcycles and vintage autos.

At one point amid the drive-by salute, the co-owner of the Holy Spirit Care Home, Perla Gonzalez, leaned in closely to Ceccarelli and told her it was her birthday.

“Feb. 5?” responded Ceccarelli, who’s astonishingly vibrant for 114 but lives with advancing dementia.

Though Ceccarelli (pronounced CHICK ah REH lee) hasn’t lived all her life in Willits, she was born there – on Feb. 5, 1908. That same year, Henry Ford produced the first Model T, Wilbur Wright completed the longest-ever airplane flight (2½ hours), and Mohandas Gandhi, at 38, was arrested for civil disobedience the first time.

The Willits girl, born Edith Recagno, was the eldest of seven children of Italian immigrants Maria and Agostino Recagno. Edith’s industrious father worked as a lumberman. He helped to build the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and ran in Willits a grocery store and then a service station.

Edith Recagno graduated in 1927 from Willits Union High School. She was 25 when she and Elmer “Brick” Keenan married in Ukiah on Nov. 17, 1933.

In ’34, the Keenans quit Willits for Santa Rosa, where Brick began a long career as a typesetter with the Press Democrat. The couple lived on Benton Street and there brought up a daughter, Laureen, or “Laurie,” whom they adopted as a newborn. Laurie Keenan Hutchins died in 2003, at age 64.

Her mother told the Press Democrat at her 112th birthday party in 2019 that she liked Santa Rosa, “but it got a little heavy – a lot of people.”

So when Edie’s husband retired from the Press Democrat in 1971, the two of them returned to Willits. Among their hometown’s distinctions are a Skunk Train depot, the state’s oldest continuously running rodeo and festival (Ceccarelli was named the Frontier Days honorary grand marshal in 2009) and a welcoming Main Street arch that formerly graced Reno and declared it, “The Biggest Little City in the World.”

Edith “Edie” Ceccarelli in 1924. Ceccarelli turned 114 on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Willits. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Edith “Edie” Ceccarelli in 1924. Ceccarelli turned 114 on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Willits. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Brick Keenan was 74 when he died in 1984. His widow, who all her life has loved to dance, subsequently met Charles Ceccarelli at a dance at the Ukiah Senior Center. They married in 1986 and spent a good deal of time on dance floors up to Charles’ death in 1990.

Through much of the past 30 or so years, Edie Ceccarrelli was known by many of the roughly 5,000 inhabitants of Willits as the gracious, stylishly dressed and endearing woman who danced, sought out opportunities to assist and savor foster children and other youngsters, gave to local causes, for endless hours tended her garden and strolled regularly about town, stopping into any number of businesses to visit.

She lived alone at her longtime Willits home until she was 107. Since then she has been in the residential care home operated by Perla and Genaro Gonzalez and their staff of helpers.

Perla Gonzalez said Ceccarrelli, who’s been extraordinarily healthy all of her life, can move about with the added stability of a wheeled walker.

Though she can walk that way, Gonzalez said, “Sometimes in the morning, she just wants to sit down and be pushed. I think she’s entitled to that.”

Edith “Edie” Ceccarelli in 1932. Ceccarelli turned 114 on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Willits. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Edith “Edie” Ceccarelli in 1932. Ceccarelli turned 114 on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Willits. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

With some assistance from her caregivers, Ceccarelli enjoys her meals, she dresses fastidiously – most often in a shade of her beloved pink – and she brushes her teeth and does her make-up and hair.

Then there’s this: she continues to believe that among the best things in life is a sip of red wine.

“It’s her go-to at dinner,” Gonzalez said.

Among Ceccarelli’s many admirers in and near Willits are five generations of cousins. Cousin-by-marriage Evelyn Persico of Willits, was a constant in her life until 2020, when the pandemic halted visits to the care home.

“I’m so tired of not being able to see Edie. It just breaks my heart,” said Persico, who’s 82. She still makes sure Ceccarelli has everything she needs, but she hasn’t been able to see her in person since a brief, masked visit late last year.

“I don’t think she knew who I was,” Persico said.

In addition to exhibiting memory loss and sometimes a reluctance to stand and push a walker, Ceccarelli now has a fair bit of trouble hearing. But for someone who’s 33 years beyond the average U.S. life expectancy for females, she’s a marvel.

“It makes me feel good that she’s still physically strong,” Persico said. “I just love that little lady.”

It’s not possible to state with certainty where Ceccarelli places among the longest-living people in the world. Scientists who study and track and rank supercentenarians – those 110 and older – can’t be positive that they simply aren’t aware of some contenders for the list. And sometimes efforts to validate the age of someone said to be extremely old are frustrated by difficulties in obtaining records such as birth certificates.

“These rankings are conditional,” said Robert Young, who maintains the Validated Living Supercentenarians list for the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group.

Edith “Edie” Ceccarelli, left, at age 5, with her brother and sister. Ceccarelli turned 114 on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Willits. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Edith “Edie” Ceccarelli, left, at age 5, with her brother and sister. Ceccarelli turned 114 on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Willits. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

That list is the world’s official ranking of the oldest known humans, and the Gerontology Research Group is for 22 straight years the official gerontology consultant of Guinness World Records..

The research group has not yet added Edie Ceccarelli to the ranking because it hasn’t secured all of the personal records it needs to fully validate her age. Even so, Young says he has seen enough to have no doubt at all that Ceccarelli did in fact turn 114 on Saturday.

Young notes that Ceccarelli appears in fact to be No. 12 because the group and its partners with Guinness World Records are close to validating that Sofia Rojas of Colombia is 114 and was born Aug. 13, 1907 – nearly six months before Ceccarelli.

If both women are certified soon and added to the ranking, Rojas will be listed as the 11th oldest known person on Earth, Ceccarelli the 12th.

At present, the gerontology researchers have verified that there are alive only 10 people 114 and older. That’s 10 out of 7.9 billion. Quite the exclusive group.

Today, the human being who’s lived the longest is Kane Tanaka of Japan, at 119 years, 35 days. Like all of the elders validated to currently be 113 or older, Tanaka is a female.

Just below her in the ranking are a woman just days short of 118, one who is 115 and seven who turned 114 before Edie Ceccarelli. Of those 10 validated oldest people in the world, three are Japanese, three are American, and one each live in France, Poland, Spain and Argentina.

The three 114-year-old Americans confirmed to have turned that age ahead of Ceccarelli are Bessie Henricks of Iowa, Mila Mangold of Berkeley and Irene Dunham of Michigan.

Ceccarelli is also regarded the oldest native Californian still living in the state.

Just in January, Ceccarelli moved up several notches on the oldest-on-Earth list because of an unusual flurry of deaths.

“January 2022 was a disaster for oldest living people,” said Young of the gerontology group. In that month alone:

The oldest resident of Brazil, Antonia da Santa Cruz, died at 116 years, 224 days.

The oldest person in the U.S., Thelma Sutcliffe of Nebraska, died at 115 years, 108 days.

The second oldest person in France, Valentine Ligny, died at 115 years, 74 days.

The second oldest person in Japan, Yoshi Otsunari, died at 115 years, 40 days.

Canada’s oldest citizen, Cecile Klein, died at 114 years, 212 days.

And the fifth oldest Japanese, Yoshi Baba, died at 114 years, 215 days.

Though it did not affect Ceccarelli’s ranking, in January also died the world’s oldest known man, Saturnino de la Fuente Garcia of Spain, at 112 years and 341 days. The leading candidate for World’s Oldest Man, established by Guinness World Records, looks to be Venezuela’s Juan Vicente Pérez Mora, who’s 112 years and 255 days old.

Women are far more likely than men to reach age 114 or older.

Young said that on average, women age 3% slower per year than men. Additionally, a 2019 study by St. Louis’ Washington University School of Medicine found that women’s brains appear to be about three years younger than men’s of the same chronological age.

That aging gap between the sexes has men tending to die younger, and placing lower on the Who’s Oldest list.

Everyone wants to know: What is it that allows the world’s few supercentenarians to live so long?

Asked often for her secrets to longevity, Edie Ceccarelli has on occasion responded, “Have two fingers of wine, and mind your own business.”

She reflected at her 105th birthday in 2013, “I’m content with what I have. I’ve been blessed and I have lived a life that has given me happiness. I’ve always been honest.”

Some people think good genes are the main contributor to an exceptionally long life. Others tend to think a healthy lifestyle is more important.

Said Young, of the Gerontology Research Group, “The reality is that to live to this age, you have to have both.”

He believes people like Ceccarelli are born with extraordinary genetics, and they build on that congenital propensity for super-longevity by embodying personal qualities that include being forever active, maintaining a healthy weight and diet, and remaining emotionally stable, interested and engaged.

Young also observed that the people who live the longest “tend to be self-directed individuals. They maintain the idea that they are in control of their lives.”

It also helps, the authority on aging said, to live in a temperate climate, like the one in the Sonoma-Mendocino region of California. “It just seems to be easier on the body,” he said.

Despite its amicable weather, the area has in recent decades celebrated only a few supercentenarians, among them Santa Rosa’s Ann (Pisenti) Beach Burow, who turned 110 in October of 2015. She died the following April.

Elsie Rich, who fled Vienna ahead of the Nazis in 1938 and became a chicken rancher in Santa Rosa, was 110 when she died in December 2011.

In Willits on Saturday, the day she turned 114, an impeccably dressed Edie Cecarrelli stood to accept a framed acknowledgement of her birthday from Assemblymember Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg. Wood said he learned of what was happening for Ceccarelli and thought, “I just have to go.”

It was no ordinary birthday celebration that Wood and all the others took part in Saturday in Willits. It was history.

Chris Smith is a retired Press Democrat reporter and columnist. You can reach him at csmith54@sonic.net.

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