Happy Birthday Pasadena’s Centenarian Project

One woman fled the Bolshevik Revolution with her family as a child, only to find herself in flight again in 1934 escaping brutal persecution in Harbin, China. Another, a Pasadena resident since 1936, battled racial prejudice with a lifelong faith in God, a positive attitude, and a focus on helping others that endeared her to everyone she met. A third was one of the first nursing school graduates from Pasadena Hospital – now Huntington Memorial Hospital – and devoted her skills to working with Pasadena schoolchildren.

Centenarian Raisa Ell by Eric Politzer
Portrait of Raisa Ell by Eric Politzer.

Centenarian Corrie Harris by Eric Politzer
Portrait of Corrie Harris by Eric Politzer.

Centenarian Claire Wilcott by Eric Politzer
Portrait of Claire Wilcott by Eric Politzer.

Raisa Ell, Corrie Harris, and Claire Wilcott were born in 1910. Each came to this region searching for a better life and, once here, firmly put down roots. Their stories are filled with joy and sadness, triumph and tragedy. This trio of fascinating women is featured in a series of oral history videos by PMH and posted on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/PasadenaHistory.

The videos evolved out of The Centenarian Project, which was initiated in 2011 for the City’s 125th birthday celebration, and were made possible through the generosity of a private donor. By sharing their stories, these women have enhanced our knowledge of local – and world – history, bringing us eyewitness accounts of people, places, and events that preceded our times. The entire Centenarian Project was completed over a two-year span (2011 and 2012), and involved photographing and interviewing twenty-seven individuals between the ages of 100 to 106 who resided in Pasadena and neighboring communities. Their stories were shared at the Happy Birthday Pasadena celebrations in 2011 and 2012, and were featured in numerous press articles. Believe it or not, the 125th birthday celebration included a panel discussion with nine of our centenarians on hand to provide insights on early Pasadena, historic events, and the sweeping changes they have seen through the years!

centenarian panel
Partial view of panel of nine centenarians featured in a presentation at Pasadena's 125th birthday celebration in 2011. Pictures (l to r): Police Chief Philip Sanchez, who introduced the panelists; Corrie Harris; "Mama Rosa" Johnson; Ralph Gain; Raisa Ell; Claire Wilcott; Ethel Engstrom; and panel moderator Andrew Stevenson, who chaired the PMH History Committee for Happy Birthday Pasadena. Photo by Herb Shoebridge.

We hardly knew what to expect as we began our citywide search for 100-year-old residents, but what we found in these individuals was much more than we had anticipated. Each and every one of us who had the pleasure of working on the project was greatly enriched by the genuine optimism, enthusiasm, warmth, and generosity of spirit that characterized these “super” seniors.

- Jeannette Bovard

Ms. Bovard was the Centenarian Project Director for Happy Birthday Pasadena.

For information on this year's Happy Birthday Pasadena celebration, please visit our Free Days page.