At 116 years old, she has outlived generations of loved ones. But their entire town belongs to the family

Published In NY Times;

By Soumya Karlamangla

Soumya Karlamangla spent four days in beautiful Willits talking to residents and meeting the centenarian who will undoubtedly be her oldest source ever.

February 7, 2024

When Edith Ceccarelli was born in February 1908, Theodore Roosevelt was president, Oklahoma had just become the 46th state in the country, and women did not yet have the right to vote.

At 116 years old, Ms. Ceccarelli is the oldest known person in the United States and the second oldest on Earth. She has lived through two world wars, the advent of the Ford Model T – and the two deadliest pandemics in American history.

For most of her time, she has lived in one place: Willits, a village in the middle of California’s redwood forests, once known for logging but now perhaps better known for Ms. Ceccarelli.

At Willits City Hall, where 100-foot-tall sequoia trees tower above, a gold-framed photo of Ms. Ceccarelli sits in a display case. Last year, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors designated Feb. 5 as a day to celebrate the county’s favorite daughter.

“When she celebrated her 100th birthday, the whole community was in awe and she became something of a local celebrity,” said Mayor Saprina Rodriguez, who at 52 is less than half Ms. Ceccarelli’s age.

Nestled in a valley surrounded by forested peaks in rural Mendocino County on California’s northern coast, Willits benefited from the booming lumber industry when Ms. Ceccarelli was a little girl. But that boom is long over and Willits remains a small working-class community of about 5,000 people.

Because it lies about 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, Willits has never attracted the tourists who flock to coastal destinations like Mendocino and Fort Bragg, with their Instagram-worthy wineries and cliff-side cottages by the sea, as well as whale-watching opportunities.

But none of these places have Ms. Ceccarelli.

On Sunday, Willits held its annual celebration for its most prized resident, who watched from the porch of her nursing home. It was raining, the start of another atmospheric river – what they called downpours for most of Ms. Ceccarelli’s life – but no one in Willits thought about canceling the annual festivities.

A parade of flashing patrol cars and fire engines passed by. Then a garbage truck. Limos decorated with garlands, balloons and flowers followed carrying residents waving and singing to their beloved Edie.

“She’s a local icon,” said Suzanne Picetti-Johnson, a longtime Willits resident who donned a rain jacket and hat and directed an SUV with “Happy Sweet 116!” scrawled on the rear window. “She was always a joy and we look forward to celebrating her for another year.”

On February 5, 1908, Edith Recagno was delivered by her aunt in a house in Willits that her father had built by hand. Since the house had no electricity or running water, a hand-dug well provided the family with drinking water and, instead of a refrigerator, a cool place to hang milk and meat.

She was the first of seven children born to Agostino and Maria Recagno, Italian immigrants who happened to move to Mendocino County. Willits, where bright green moss covers tree trunks and giant ferns unfurl along the banks of icy streams, was settled by pioneer ranchers in the 1850s as fortune seekers flocked to California during the Gold Rush.

But then big trees became big business here. Forests of ancient sequoias and other trees were cut down and sent south to help build a rapidly growing San Francisco. Ms. Ceccarelli’s father worked as a carpenter to develop the railroad to Willits, which in the early 1900s allowed Bay Area tourists to vacation in the fresh mountain air of the Redwood Empire. For $2.50 a night, guests at the 100-room Hotel Willits enjoyed on-site tennis courts, a bowling alley, and a dining room considered the best in North San Francisco.

Growing up, Ms. Ceccarelli played basketball, tennis and the saxophone — her mother had to save money to buy the instrument — and she loved to sing and dance. She remembered her father, who opened a grocery store in Willits in 1916, chopping firewood after work and hauling it home.

“He sat with us after dinner and helped us read,” Ms. Ceccarelli once wrote. “He only had a third-grade education, but he was smart. I still see the oil lamp on the table where we read.”

From then on, Ms. Ceccarelli’s life developed like that of many others. At 25, she married her high school sweetheart, Elmer Keenan, and they moved to nearby Santa Rosa, where he took a job as a typesetter at The Press Democrat newspaper. The couple soon adopted a young daughter. In 1971, after her husband retired, the two returned to Willits.

Ms. Ceccarelli continued to age, but not everyone in her life was so lucky. Her husband died in 1984 after more than 50 years of marriage. Ms. Ceccarelli remarried and her second husband, Charles Ceccarelli, died in 1990. Her daughter died at age 64 in 2003. Ms. Ceccarelli has since outlived her six younger siblings as well as her three granddaughters, each of whom died in 2003 due to a genetic condition Illness over 40.

“They’re all gone — they’ve been gone for many years,” said Evelyn Persico, 84, as she flipped through black-and-white photo albums labeled in Ms. Ceccarelli’s cursive. Ms. Persico, who is married to Ms. Ceccarelli’s second cousin and lives on a ranch in Willits, is one of her few remaining relatives.

As her 100th birthday approached in 2008, Ms. Ceccarelli herself extended the invitation to all of Willits. Despite decades of changes, such as the routing of Highway 101 through Main Street and the growth of marijuana farms, Willits remained a close-knit community. The elegant Ms. Ceccarelli was known for never missing a dance at the senior center and for walking around town daily.

Wearing a fuchsia suit and high heels, she danced alongside more than 500 people who had come to celebrate her new status as a centenarian, and the then-mayor placed a tiara on her white hair.

Every year from then on, Ms. Ceccarelli’s birthday was celebrated with a party, luncheon or, in the Covid era, a parade open to all Willits residents. She often wore a colorful scarf and beads and shared her wisdom for long life: “Have a few fingers of red wine with dinner and mind your own business.”

Other years she regaled her guests with stories of days gone by, of meeting a man who had lunch with Abraham Lincoln or of how all the bells rang in Willits on November 11, 1918, signaling the end of World War I announced.

“I like the small town, you know more people,” Ms. Ceccarelli told the local newspaper shortly before her 107th birthday party. “You go to a big city, you don’t know anyone.”

When her longtime dance partner and companion died, she again turned to Willits for support. She placed an ad in the local newspaper:

“I, Edith Ceccarelli, known as ‘Edie’ to her family and many friends, would like to continue dancing,” she wrote in 2012. “Dancing keeps your limbs strong.” What could be nicer than holding a lovely lady in your arms and dance a beautiful waltz or two-step together?

“Try it, you’ll like it,” she added along with her phone number. She was 104 years old at the time.

Ms. Ceccarelli lived alone until she was 107, then moved to a nursing home in Willits. They now live an average of 37 years longer than American women. The only person known to be older than her is Maria Branyas Morera, who lives in Spain but was born in San Francisco 11 months before Ms. Ceccarelli.

The city has taken over planning her birthday parties because her dementia has recently progressed and she doesn’t always know what’s happening. On the morning of her party, she seemed happy to learn that everyone was there for her. She enjoyed a sample of her carrot cake labeled “116.”

“I just marvel at her,” said Ms. Persico, who greeted Ms. Ceccarelli that day with a kiss on the forehead. “I can’t believe this little Italian baby has such amazing longevity coming from a town as small as us.”