Edie Ceccarelli of Willits, the oldest living American, celebrates 116th birthday with parade

The second-oldest person on Earth was celebrated in a drive-by parade on Sunday. Born in Willits on Feb. 5, 1908, she turns 116 on Monday.|

WILLITS — Even amid a blustery and soaking storm, this central Mendocino County city pinched itself Sunday to be celebrating an occasion that precious few communities have ever known and perhaps ever will: a native resident’s 116th birthday.

The star of a drive-by parade was Edie Ceccarelli, validated as the oldest living American, the oldest-ever Californian and the second-oldest person on Earth.

Born in Willits on Feb. 5, 1908, she turned 116 on Monday.

“I’m delighted that we get to celebrate her another year!” declared Suzanne Picetti-Johnson, coordinator of the affectionate, hometown parade.

As many dozens of vehicles drove slowly by the residential care home where Edie lives, she sat at a table in the warmed garage, all bundled up and decked out, and took in the spectacle. No one can be sure to what degree she comprehended what was going on, but she clearly took notice of the balloons and the hearts, the children and dogs and the shouts of “Happy birthday, Edie!”

Mendocino County Supervisor John Haschak remarked from the rain-slicked sidewalk, “The civic pride is so tremendous for her longevity and the way she’s lived her life.”

Edie, a smart dresser who for decades loved to dance and to greet all she met while taking long walks through her town, has been extraordinarily healthy and vigorous all her life. Just recently, signs of physical decline have grown more evident.

“It’s now kind of touch and go with Edie,” Perla Gonzalez, who knows her well, said a few days before the birthday parade. Gonzalez and her husband, Genaro, operate the small Willits care home at which Edie has lived the past nine years.

“Last week was the very first time that she didn’t want to eat breakfast,” Gonzalez said. “And she is sleeping a little more, even during the day.”

Gonzalez, co-owner of the Holy Spirit Residential Care Home, said a single staff member has been able to assist Edie. “Lately,” she said, “it takes two people to help her.

“There are some noticeable changes.”

Though she shows more signs of slowing, for her to be doing as well as she is at 116 is beyond extraordinary. It’s historic.

On Sunday, there was exactly one person 116 years or older on the entire planet. That is Maria Branyas Morera, the Spanish woman who is 11 months Edie’s senior and is verified as the oldest known person on Earth.

Branyas was born, just as Edie was, in Northern California. Her parents had come to San Francisco for work. Branyas lived for eight years in the U.S., then her parents returned with their family to Spain, settling in Catalonia.

With Edie’s birthday on Monday, there will be two 116-year-olds on the planet. Search online for listings of the oldest people everNo more than 30 human beings have been confirmed to reach or exceed age 116.

Edie has been asked many times for the secrets to her vitality and longevity. One time years ago she replied, “Have a couple of fingers of red wine with dinner, and mind your own business.”

People close to her say they suspect that other factors at play in her stunningly vigorous and long life include her upbeat approach to life, the moderation she has always exercised and the fact that she always stayed active.

Parade coordinator Picetti-Johnson’s day job is manager of the Avenue to Wellness program of the Frank R. Howard Foundation. She said, “Edie embodies wellness, she has her whole life.”

In 1908, the year Henry Ford introduced the Model T, Edith Recagno was the first of seven children born to Italian immigrants Maria and Agostino Recagno. Edie would recall picking potatoes for 50 cents a day, and reading at night by the light of an oil lamp.

She graduated with the Willits Union High School Class of 1927. In 1933, she married Elmer "Brick" Keenan and soon thereafter moved with him to Santa Rosa, where he went to work as a typesetter with The Press Democrat.

The Keenans settled onto Santa Rosa's Benton Street and they adopted a daughter, Laureen, who would grow up to marry and have three children. Edie would outlive them all.

When Brick Keenan retired from the PD in 1971, he and Edie left Santa Rosa and returned to quieter, smaller Willits. They had a house built on Willits' Mendocino Avenue.

Brick Keenan died in 1984. His widow later married Charles Ceccarelli. They'd lived happily for just a few years when Charles died in 1990.

As an active and glamorous senior in her hometown, Edie was beloved by all who were her neighbors or who felt fortunate to encounter her on her daily walks.

Said Willits City Clerk Delores Pedersen, “When I started at the city almost 20 years ago, she would walk from her home to city hall to pay her water bill. She was so impeccably dressed. A hat and gloves. And she was always so nice.’

“The whole community just loves her.”

According to longevity scientists with the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group, nine of the planet’s 10 oldest people are women. The exception: 114-year-old Juan Vicente Perez Mora of Venezuela, currently No. 5 on the World’s Oldest list.

Two other American women appear on the Oldest Ten list. They are No. 6 Elizabeth Francis of Houston, Texas, and No. 9 Pearl Berg of Los Angeles. Both are 114.

Along with the three American women, Spain’s Branyas and the Venezuelan man, the planet’s current oldest confirmed inhabitants include three Japanese women and one each from Brazil and Great Britain.

Edie Ceccarelli is now just one notch away from being the oldest living person on Earth. She will need to keep on keeping on for a while if she is to become the oldest human being ever.

That distinction goes to France’s Jeanne Louise Calment. She died Aug. 4, 1997, at the age of 122 years and 164 days.

As Edie always has, she’s taking a day at a time.

Chris Smith is a retired Press Democrat reporter and columnist. You can contact him at 707-477-6489.

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