BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — When Christine Correnti was born on Feb, 5, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, Henry Ford had just introduced an assembly line for the Model T and Charlie Chaplin was three days from debuting his beloved “Little Tramp” persona.
So it seemed fitting this Mother’s Day weekend that the city pay tribute to this nearly 104-year-old great-grandmother of eight — the eldest mom at the Bethany Senior Center — by proclaiming May 12 in her honor.
“She takes everything in stride,” said Correnti’s 77-year-old son Ron, explaining his mother’s secret to longevity. “Nothing seems to bother her.
“And she makes a wicked rice pudding.”
Ivy Willoughby, an “iconic figure” and longtime volunteer across the city, joined her in the festivities at the Thorme Street center, enjoying hugs and praise from Mayor Joe Ganim, who read from the list of each woman’s accomplishments.
“I’m tired just saying it,” said Ganim, who thanked center Coordinator Carrie Taylor for recognizing the honorees.
Correnti — née DeLuca — grew up on North and Jackson avenues and spent much of her younger years in the city’s Hollow. She remembered trekking from her home to downtown on Thursdays, when Grants, Woolworth’s and the other department stores stayed open late.
“I walked,” she said. “I had no choice.”
In 1938, she married her beloved husband, Orlando Correnti, at St. Raphael Church, focusing on raising Ron, his brother Jim and sister Pat. When Orlando had to move to a nursing home, she visited him each day until he passed away.
And then she started chapter two of her long life.
She earned her driver’s license at 55 and took her first job, sewing at Marguerite’s Costume Shop on State Street. From there, she joined the nutrition program through the Board of Education, cooking for the masses at its Federal Street offices.
“They didn’t have a menu, so she made whatever she wanted — eggplant, macaroni, meatballs,” her son said. “They all loved her cooking.”
She retired at 85, having served 30 years.
“I had help,” she said of the grueling work. “But it had to be homemade, nothing canned.”
Correnti credits having family around and a healthy lifestyle for her many years.
“It’s cooking. Fresh meats, fresh vegetables. All homemade,” she said. “I’m so glad to be alive.”
Willoughby lived in Greenwich for a time before moving to Bridgeport more than 40 years ago.
She worked 16 years for a home for the aged in New York before becoming a volunteer for the city of Bridgeport in 1998, working with children in the summer camps, night recreation and swimming programs, as well as senior centers across the city.
A member of Come to Jesus Ministry, the woman known only as "Grandma" to many has helped and fed the poor at Prospect House, Seaside Park and through the longstanding food and clothing distribution under the John Street bridge.
“My heart has always been for the old people and the children,” said the mother of five who, with husband Lester, counts about 50 or more among those who are or feel like her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Asked how she keeps up the strength to serve so many, she closed her eyes.
“I have to say what’s with me,” she said. “I don’t do anything without praying about it.
“And we have a lot of good people in the city of Bridgeport.”