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Essential California: At 113, she may be the oldest native Californian in the state

Edie Ceccarelli (right) and her primary caregiver Perla Gonzalez during a celebration for Ceccarelli's 113th birthday.
Edie Ceccarelli, right, and her primary caregiver, Perla Gonzalez.
(Suzanne Picetti)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Feb. 16, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

For the record:

1:55 p.m. Feb. 16, 2021Spanish supercentenarian Maria Branyas was born in San Francisco in 1907, before moving to Spain in 1915. Edie Ceccarelli is not the oldest living native Californian, as an earlier version of this story stated, but she is believed to be the oldest native Californian still living in California.

There were roughly 2.16 million people living in California in 1908. Only one of them is known to still be here, alive and breathing in the Golden State.

Through 21 presidential administrations, two once-in-a-century pandemics, the fall of foreign empires and the birth of a thousand new ways of life, she has quietly gone about her daily business in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

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Earlier this month, Edie Ceccarelli — believed to be the oldest living native Californian in the state — turned 113. The Northern California town of Willits celebrated its native daughter’s 113th trip around the sun with a socially distanced car parade.

Ceccarelli’s birthday has become something of a minor holiday in Willits, where community members have gathered for birthday blowouts since she turned 100 back in 2008. “We’re a small town,” said Willits resident and family friend Marnye Sylvander. “She’s kind of an icon for us here.”

But the pandemic necessitated a different kind of celebration from the banquets of years past. Cue hundreds of cars, fire trucks, bicyclists, pedestrians and a few flag-waving horseback riders, all making their way past the Willits care home where Ceccarelli now resides. The birthday girl wore a tiara and borrowed fur coat as she waved from a patio.

Cousin Evelyn Persico had worried that Ceccarelli, who lives with dementia, might feel abandoned during the pandemic, with her usual visitors barred. But her cousin has always loved a parade. “It was just a great day for her,” Persico said.

[See also: “Edie Ceccarelli’s 113th birthday is a big deal for Willits, and for the world” in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat]

When Ceccarelli (née Recagno and, later, Keenan) was born on Feb. 5, 1908, in Willits, women did not have the right to vote. She was delivered at home, in a house without running water or electricity that her Italian immigrant father had built with his own two hands. Henry Ford would introduce the first Model T automobiles later that same year.

At the time, downtown Willits would probably still have borne visible damage from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, according to Historical Society of Mendocino County historian and archivist Alyssa Ballard.

“Right when Edith was born was really when Willits was getting connected to the outside world,” Ballard said, noting that the newly constructed Northwestern Pacific Railroad wouldn’t offer regular passenger transport to the town until around 1910.

Ceccarelli’s father, a lumber worker who helped build the railroad, sold groceries by horse and buggy during the early years of her childhood. He opened his grocery store in 1916, as battles raged abroad and the U.S. prepared to enter World War I.

By the next World War, Ceccarelli was married to her childhood sweetheart, Elmer Keenan, living with him and their daughter in Santa Rosa. Richard Nixon was still in the Oval Office when the couple moved home to spend their golden years in Willits, after Keenan retired from a long career at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. That was 50 years ago.

A high school yearbook page with photos and other information
Edie Ceccarelli (then Edith Recagno) is pictured in the top right corner on her senior yearbook page.
(Historical Society of Mendocino County)

Ceccarelli is a member of an elite club of supercentenarians, or people over 110. Robert Young, co-director of the Gerontology Research Group, compared life after 110 to the “death zone” climbers face near the peak of Mt. Everest. It is incredibly rare to reach supercentenarian status, and rarer still to surpass it.

Young’s group, which has not officially verified Ceccarelli’s age, catalogs the world’s oldest living people. According to his estimates, Ceccarelli is “approximately the 40th oldest person in the world.” She is not the oldest state resident — that distinction belongs to Nebraska-born Berkeleyan Mila Mangold, also 113 — but Ceccarelli is believed to be the oldest native Californian still living in the U.S. (Lucy Mirigan, who previously held the title of oldest nonnative Californian, died Friday at 114.)

To defy death is to endure a long onslaught of loss. Ceccarelli, who lived independently until she was 107, has outlived six younger siblings, two husbands, a daughter and three grandchildren.

“She’s outlasted all of her dance partners,” observed Willits Mayor Madge Strong, who took part in the birthday car parade from her white Prius.

But even into her centenarian years, Ceccarelli’s drive for connection and joy remained irrepressible.

After her longtime local companion and dance partner died at 86, she published an open letter in the local paper, looking for someone to waltz with her. “I, Edith Ceccarelli — also known as ‘Edie’ by her family and a multitude of friends — would like to keep on dancing,” she wrote. She was 104 at the time, and included her phone number so prospective dance partners could get in touch.

There is no single key to longevity, though the gerontology researcher said there are a few commonalities. According to Young, the world’s oldest people tend to be female, have kept their minds and bodies active and have a healthy body weight. They also tend not to get too upset about the small things.

Persico said that in the past, her cousin has attributed her longevity to her love of red wine with dinner, long walkabouts in downtown Willits and “good Italian genes.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Blue Shield outlines how it will distribute COVID-19 vaccine: Blue Shield of California will create an algorithm to determine where to allocate COVID-19 vaccines statewide, with the goal of administering 3 million shots a week by March 1, according to a contract made public that grants the insurance giant far-reaching powers in overseeing the state’s distribution of doses. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. STORIES

Los Angeles County elementary school campuses are cleared to fully reopen for the first time in nearly a year because of dropping coronavirus rates, health officials confirmed Monday night. Schools can reopen if they have submitted and posted the necessary paperwork with county and state officials.

But the milestone will not result in an immediate reopening of campuses in Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system. District officials and the teachers union are in negotiations over what a return to campus would look like — and it isn’t clear that either side is ready for an immediate resumption of in-person instruction. Los Angeles Times

Nia Dennis and the groundbreaking genius of her #BlackExcellence routine. The UCLA gymnast is a viral sensation, with a floor routine that tells a deeply personal story: “I know who I am as a woman and a Black woman at that.” Los Angeles Times

Nia Dennis
UCLA’s Nia Dennis pays homage to the Black Lives Matter movement with her floor routine.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

GOP eyes the playbook California used to stymie Trump: After Democrats succeeded in unraveling much of the Trump agenda through a California-led deluge of lawsuits, they now face a sobering reality: Their courtroom playbook is about to be turned against them. Republican attorneys general are angling to retaliate with equal force, further pushing the boundaries of an elected position that not long ago was among the most apolitical in state government. In the modern era, it is the new launchpad for partisan attacks. Los Angeles Times

California plans to close troubled youth prisons after 80 years. But what comes next? Los Angeles Times

COPS, CRIME AND COURTS

LAPD officers allegedly circulated a mock valentine photo of George Floyd with the caption “You take my breath away.” Floyd was killed in May after one officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes as Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” The LAPD has launched an internal investigation. L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón said the allegation “underscores the highly problematic and, frankly, racist perceptions that pervade the law enforcement culture regarding the communities we are sworn to protect and serve.” Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Omitted doses, uploading errors, lag times and software mishaps: California’s vaccine rollout has been plagued by data issues, leaving the state unable to keep track of how many doses of the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine are available at any one time. Los Angeles Times

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur started a COVID-19 vaccine company. Then he hosted a superspreader event. The conference — an indoor, mostly unmasked gathering for wealthy executives — “went ahead despite public health orders that made it clear that neither booking a hotel for nonessential travel nor the in-person gathering itself was permitted.” MIT Technology Review

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

“Our Asian neighbors are suffering. We need to listen to them,” writes San Francisco columnist Justin Phillips. San Francisco Chronicle

“Squaw” is a slur to many Native Americans. These activists want a Fresno County town renamed. Fresno Bee

How one journalist experienced the search for two kidnapped children. KQED’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez was home on a Saturday night when his old friend Jeffrey Fang called with horrific news: Fang’s two young children had been kidnapped while he was working as a DoorDash delivery driver, and he needed Rodriguez to help get the word out. KQED

What happens when a city’s largest employer goes work-from-anywhere? Contextualizing Salesforce’s recent announcement and what it could mean for San Francisco. Bloomberg CityLab

A poem to to start your week: “There is a gold light in certain old paintings” by Donald Justice. Poetry Foundation

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 70. San Diego: partly sunny, 63. San Francisco: sunny, 57. San Jose: partly sunny, 59. Fresno: sunny, 63. Sacramento: partly sunny, 63.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Mac Larsen:

In the mid-'90s, my wife and I would sail from San Diego to Catalina each summer, mooring outside Avalon for a few weeks each time. One summer while bar-hopping we came upon a good-sounding karaoke singer. We went into the bar and walked right by Rod Stewart singing “Maggie May”! Strangers next to our table didn’t believe it was him, so my wife got up and walked over to his table. As I watched her chat with him and his guests, he showed her his American Express card. After a long chat, she came back with a glowing, nodding smile. He sent us over a small gift. Great guy.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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