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Edie Ceccarelli’s 113th birthday is a big deal for Willits, and for the world

On her birthday Friday in her hometown of Willits, Edie Ceccarelli earned a new stripe in one of the most elite and revered groups on Earth.

Hardly anyone on this planet lives 112 years. But the elegant and dear Ceccarelli, who counts among the prime joys of her life dancing, being with her large family and many friends, and savoring maybe two fingers of red wine with a nice meal, just turned 113.

She wore lipstick, a crown and a borrowed fur coat at midday Friday as she sat just outside the front door of the small care home at which she is the resident celebrity. She waved, blew kisses and winked back tears of joy as an era-of-COVID birthday parade passed slowly but boisterously by on Grove Street, just behind the town’s newish Adventist Health Howard Memorial Hospital.

“I’m happy for everybody,” said Ceccarelli, pronounced chick-ah-REHL-ee, at one point. She lives now with dementia, and it’s possible that she wasn’t aware at every instant of exactly whose birthday it was. She quite clearly loved the celebration, regardless.

The occasion was a big deal for the central Mendocino County town of Willits, where Ceccarelli was born Feb. 5, 1908, to immigrants Agostino and Maria Recagno. She was the eldest of the Recgano’s seven children; Ceccarelli has outlived them all.

For her to be not only alive but lively 113 years later, getting about with a walker and always cleaning her plate, is also a big deal globally.

Ceccarelli, who left Willits for a long stretch and lived in Santa Rosa, is not all that much younger than Japan’s Kane Tanaka, at 118 thought to be the oldest person on Earth.

To precisely list the most senior humans on the planet is a tricky business. But Internet searchers can find listings that place Ceccarelli at No. 28. That’s way up there: No. 28 of more than 7.8 billion.

Scientists with the Gerontology Research Group in Los Angeles post — at grg.org/WSRL/TableE.aspx — an authoritative, constantly updated ranking of the world’s two dozen or so oldest people.

Ceccarelli is not on that list. But on Saturday the youngest person listed, No. 23, was Irene Dunham of Lansing, Michigan. And at 113 years and 53 days, Dunham is a mere 51 days Ceccarelli’s senior.

So if the pride of Willits is not in fact the 28th oldest person in the world, she can’t be far from it.

Ceccarelli appears also to be among the top 10 oldest Americans. No. 1 as of Saturday was Hester Ford of Charlotte, North Carolina. Ford is officially listed at 115 years and 176 days old, but her family insists she’s in fact one year older.

Ceccarelli is not the oldest person living in California. That distinction goes to the East Bay’s Mila Mangold, who was born in Nebraska on Nov. 14, 1907 — 12 weeks before the arrival in Willits of the child named Edith Recagno.

It seems pretty safe to say that Ceccarelli is now the oldest native-born resident of California.

And it is gospel that she is a source of great joy and pride to Willits.

“She’s a real icon of the community,” said John Haschak, who represents the Willits area on the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. Haschak came to the birthday celebration to greet Ceccarelli and give her a proclamation from the board.

The city council gave her one, too. It noted that at 113 she continues to “wine and dine, dress to the nines and love the sounds of big band music each and every day.”

Friday’s celebratory procession on Grove Street was a bona fide, small-town parade.

There were fire engines, from Willits and Little Lake departments, and patrol cars from the Willits Police, Mendocino County Sheriff and CHP.

A distant but always close-by fifth cousin of Ceccarelli, Kaydance Lopez, appeared on horseback along with third cousin Nicol Persico Kunka and fourth cousin Ashley Persico, among other flag-bearing young equestrians. There were vintage cars and balloons and flowers and banners, and a heap of safely dropped-off cards and gifts.

Edie Ceccarelli beamed.

“She loves a parade,” said cousin by marriage Evelyn Persico of Willits. Persico recalled that Ceccarelli could for decades be counted on to be present downtown on Independence Day for the town’s Frontier Days parade.

She missed the Fourth of July parade through most of the good many years that she lived in Santa Rosa.

She was 26 when she moved there in 1934 when her husband, Elmer “Brick” Keenan, landed a job as a typesetter with The Press Democrat. The couple lived near downtown on Benton Street and reared a daughter they adopted, Laureen.

Ceccarelli said at a big, 112th birthday party in Willits last year that she and her husband liked Santa Rosa, “but it got a little heavy — a lot of people.” So when Brick Keenan retired from the PD in 1971, the couple happily returned to the much smaller, more rural Willits.

Edie Keenan became renowned in town as an avid dancer, a philanthropist and an endearing soul who loved to stroll about and talk with people.

Her husband the retired newspaper printer died in 1984. His widow two years later married Charles Ceccarelli and lived happily in Willits until Charles’ death in 1990.

Edie Ceccarelli lived independently until only a few years back. She still does a good deal for herself and she has no trouble moving about the care home behind her walker.

“She looks great,” Evelyn Persico said. “She’s like a little Eveready battery.”

Ceccarelli treated herself to a little wine with dinner on her birthday. But then, she enjoys a tiny glass with just about every meal, and sometimes more than that.

“Come on, she’s 113,” said Perla Gonzalez, who runs the Holy Spirit home with her husband, Genaro. “If she wants a midnight snack of ice cream and red wine, I’ll give it to her.”

Age has its advantages.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to add the names of Edie Ceccarelli’s parents.

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