America’s oldest living person is turning 116. Her hometown is throwing a birthday bash

By: Claire Thornton, USA Today

The oldest person in the U.S. is about to celebrate her 116th birthday.

Edith “Edie” Recagno Keenan Ceccarelli lives in northern California, in the small town of Willits and she’s the second-oldest person on Earth, according to the Gerontology Research Group.

She’ll mark another year around the sun on Feb. 5. The town of Willits celebrates her birthday annually, and will commemorate her 116 years on Sunday, Feb. 4, with a parade.

Ceccarelli is a local treasure and celebrity, and her birthday parade is the party of the season in Willits, organizers and city employees told USA TODAY. Town employees will drive in the parade, including a vice mayor, council member and the fire and police departments. The Boy Scouts will be on the route celebrating, as well as a few horses and a locally famous dog-walker. Willits residents and people coming into town for the parade can drive past Ceccarelli’s assisted living home in cars decorated with balloons, flags, signs and streamers.

“Every year at her birthday, we make sure she knows how special she is,” lead parade organizer Suzanne Picetti told USA TODAY.

Ceccarelli is perhaps most excited for the carrot cake her family ordered for Sunday, said Perla Gonzalez, one of Ceccarelli’s caretakers at Willits’ Holy Spirit Residential Care Home.

“She got very excited when she learned the cake would be carrot cake,” Gonzalez said. “She said, ‘Oh really, honey?,’ and lit up.”

On Sunday around 11:30 a.m., Ceccarelli will get to eat cake and strawberry ice cream − another one of her favorites − and then she’ll probably need to take a nap before the real festivities begin, Gonzalez, 51, said.

In past years, Ceccarelli celebrated with crowds over birthday sweets in Willits city buildings. Since 2021, the yearly celebration has turned into a drive-by parade because of COVID-19, Ceccarelli’s cousin, Evelyn Persico told USA TODAY.

The car caravan is scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m. this Sunday, and will likely last for about an hour, Picetti, 62, said. There is some rain in the forecast, so less people may turn out compared to past years, she said. Organizers begin planning the February event every year in December.

The parade will happen regardless of weather, family, organizers and Holy Spirit staff said.

On her 100th birthday, Ceccarelli began inviting the whole town to celebrate with her, and friends even wrote in The Willits News telling everyone to come, said Picetti.

“Her birthday, ever since she was 100 has always been a community thing, a public party,” Picetti said. “It brings community together to celebrate a really special human being. It bring a lot of joy and happiness to our community.”

These days, Ceccarelli can’t talk on the phone and hold a conversation like she once could, family and caretakes said. But she can still feed herself and she only moved to an assisted living community at age 107.

Throughout her life, she has been a hard worker and a “people person,” said Persico, who is married to Ceccarelli’s second cousin, Lee Persico. After Persico retired from her job at a bank in Willits, she formed a special friendship with Ceccarelli, she said.

“I just feel that she’s God’s chosen one to be on Earth as long as she has been,” Persico told USA TODAY, adding that Ceccarelli is beloved in the community, including among local historians for Mendocino County.

Lifelong Californian was always a hard worker, family says

Ceccarelli was born in Willits in 1908 and has only ever lived in northern California, calling Eureka, Ukiah and Santa Rosa home at different times of her life, her family said. Her parents immigrated to Willits from Italy in the early 1900s, family said.

“It’s really an honor for the city to have a person with the history she has, having been born and raised in Willits,” town clerk Delores Pedersen, 52, said. She first met Ceccarelli nearly 20 years ago while working at city hall, when Ceccarelli would walk in to pay her water bill.

Ceccarelli is the eldest of seven children and outlived all her siblings, Persico said. Growing up, all the kids would pitch in working odd jobs, sometimes digging for potatoes in the valley, and bring money back home to their parents, Persico said.

“Back in the day, it was all work, work, work,” she said, describing how Ceccarelli’s father built the house she was born in during the early 1900s. “It was just physical labor back in those days, they walked everywhere, they didn’t have a car, they grew their own food. You watch these old movies and that’s kind of the life that they lived.”

Later in life, Ceccarelli became known for her classy sense of fashion, walking around town wearing a hat, gloves, jewelry and perfect makeup − until well past the age of 100, Picetti said.

“Every day she would walk downtown, dressed to the nines, right down to the jewelry and the purse,” she said.

Ceccarelli’s first husband was a typesetter at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a newspaper still in publication. Together, Ceccarelli and that husband had one daughter, and three granddaughters, Persico said.

In adulthood, Ceccarelli loved dancing, cooking, gardening and going for walks.

“She had a very happy, fruitful life,” Persico said.

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