Everyone remembers Mrs. Mangold collecting fallen fruit from her prolific orange tree on Magnolia Street in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood.
Donning low heels that may have dated back to the 1950s or ’60s, “she would still be able to bend over without bending her knees” to pick up dozens of oranges even after she turned 100, neighbor Deane Bunce recalled Thursday. “There must have been 50 a night that dropped. It was like what people do in yoga in terms of reaching down.”
Mangold would sometimes make marmalade from those oranges to share with her neighbors. But her main goal was to keep the street tidy so no one would trip on the messy fruit, which often split open on impact.
On her half-birthday, which came Thursday, several longtime neighbors of Mila Mangold shared their reflections of the 112-year-old, who now lives in an assisted living facility in El Cerrito but remains a local legend on her locust tree-lined street, which spans a single Berkeley block. Some of the neighbors refer to the white locust blossoms as snow for the way the flowers flutter down and blanket the street.
It was originally neighbor Martha Chase who alerted Berkeleyside to Mangold’s half-birthday.
“I’ve always kept track of her birthday,” Chase said Thursday, and would pay her visits to celebrate the event when Mangold lived in a senior facility on Shattuck Avenue. “I always kept it in mind because she kept being older and older. And then it seemed to me that turning 112½ was a pretty big deal.”
Chase and others remember Mangold walking briskly up the block to do her exercises and greet her neighbors. For decades, her routine involved walking to Alta Bates Hospital, a half-mile away, to have lunch with friends in the cafeteria there.
After she turned 100, Chase said, Mangold shifted her routine to stay closer to home. She would walk up to the corner, place her hand on a stop sign and walk around it in a circle. She’d walk back to her home, which is five houses up the block, then turn around and do it all again. Mangold’s exercise routine was a frequent sight for Chase as she walked her dog Stevie (a “Humane Society special”) up Magnolia and through the neighborhood.
Donald Mangold, Mila’s son, said his mother had not done anything Thursday to mark her half-birthday. She did get to celebrate Mother’s Day last weekend at her assisted living home, he said, “which was very nice.” He and his wife now use FaceTime to visit with his mother a couple of times each week since in-person visits are no longer possible amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mangold said people always ask him how in the world his mother has come to live so long.
“We don’t know,” the Berkeley resident said Thursday. “It’s the Lord’s mercy.”
Mangold noted that many of his relatives lived into their 80s and 90s. His maternal grandmother lived to 95 and his mother’s sister was nearly 101 when she died.
“She does have the genetic background for it,” he said.
Mila Mangold was born in 1907. (Berkeleyside confirmed Mangold’s date of birth through Alameda County voting records.) She was raised in Nebraska and “always exercised well,” her son said. She grew up in “a hearty family,” ate “sensibly” and “always did her physical exercises even when I was growing up.”
Donald recalls his mother setting up a plank board at a slant on the family couch when he was little.
“She would get on it upside down and then come up,” he said. “She put her hands behind her head and touched her elbows to her knees. I remember that from when I was a child.”
Throughout her life, he said, his mother was always a “surprisingly fast” walker. She uses a wheelchair now, but her pace has persisted. Several months back, he recalled, he was visiting his mother in El Cerrito when he turned around, leaving the brakes on her chair unengaged.
“It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds,” he said. “I turned around and she had gone about 30 feet. She’s pretty vigorous even to this day.”
His mother has clear memories of the Spanish flu epidemic from 1918, he said, from the small town where she grew up. She recalls soldiers — known then as “doughboys” — coming back from World War I. The mother from the family who lived across the street died of that flu, Mangold said.
“That just shows how far back she lived that she could remember that,” he said.
Mangold met her husband, Walter S. Mangold, in Southern California. He worked in public health and she was a secretary in a health department in Los Angeles, where she lived during the Great Depression.
The couple moved to Berkeley in the 1940s. Walter Mangold became a professor at UC Berkeley and helped found the field of environmental health. The premier award in the field, known originally as sanitation, is named to honor him.
Neighbor Mary Byrnes recalled Thursday how Mila Mangold was “always neat as a pin” in her pastel dresses that buttoned from the hem to the neckline and were belted at the waist. Her hair was always coiffed and she wore “half stockings,” which ended above her knee, that Byrnes would see when Mangold bent over to put her oranges into paper or plastic Safeway bags.
“She was always dressed like the perfect little lady in her same style dress exactly like my mother always wore in the 1940s,” Byrnes said.
In Berkeley, Mangold loved having meals at La Mediterranee Café at College and Ashby — she particularly loved their chicken — and liked walking on the UC Berkeley campus where her husband worked. She was a longtime member of Cal’s Faculty Club. One neighbor recalled receiving lovely cookie platters from Mangold as part of an annual baking event the “faculty wives” put on.
Donald — who is now retired from his job as a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory but is still known as “Donny,” which is what his mother calls him, to his longtime neighbors — said residents on the block often worried about his mother when they saw her collecting oranges from her tree. Donald, too, was concerned she might get hurt.
“I kept begging her, please, please let somebody else do that,” he said. “Even the neighbors would go tell her, ‘You don’t need to do it.'”
But she always wanted to be sure no one would trip and hurt themselves, he said. Now, the job has fallen to a 10-year-old boy on the block who Donald hired to handle the task.
That boy is the son of Bill Di Napoli, who has lived on Magnolia for nearly four decades. He described that stretch on Thursday as “a relatively short time in Mrs Mangold’s time.”
His most vivid memory of Mangold, he said, is how “she would dart between the cars to go out in the street” to collect fallen oranges from her tree. He said he was always worried that a reckless driver might run into her.
Once, Di Napoli charged into the street to block a driver who was racing down Magnolia “way too fast” in order to tell the man he had to slow down.
“Mrs. Mangold’s 108 years old,” Di Napoli admonished the driver. “You wouldn’t want to be the one who takes her out.”
The man apologized and went, more slowly, on his way.
Even after Mangold moved into assisted living, Donald, an only child described by one neighbor as “the best son ever,” would bring his mother back to Magnolia Street for annual block parties. Di Napoli recalled how much Mila — a friendly woman who always has a smile for everyone — would relish the food at those festivities. The spare ribs were a particular favorite, even after she lost some of her teeth.
“She loved those ribs,” Di Napoli said.
Mangold was known throughout the neighborhood for her healthy appetite. Though she’s mostly limited now to soft foods, her son said, “she’ll eat the whole plate down. She wants it all.” That’s especially true for chocolate, he said.
Neighbor Byrnes recalled one particular block party where the entire neighborhood sang “happy birthday” to Mila as she enjoyed her meal.
“She didn’t look up from her food,” Byrnes said. “She just likes to eat.”
Di Napoli described Mangold as “a legend on our block” whose long tenure helps put everything else in perspective: “I always think, ‘You are just a youngster to Mrs. Mangold — even at 80.’ I definitely drink the Magnolia Street water and not worry about it. It worked for her!”
Deborah Wiener lives on Magnolia Street with her husband Daniel Boone. They moved there in 1983. Now Wiener is 74 and her husband is 77.
“We were young people with one small child when we moved in,” she said. “Now we’re the old people. Which is a real transition for this block.”
Ellen Thomsen was 18 months old when her family moved next door to the Mangolds in 1957. Thomsen still lives in the family home today.
“People get ahold of these houses and they don’t let go,” she said. Back then, “people couldn’t wait to get rid of them. They were selling them for nothing” and moving to the suburbs.
The two families would look out for each other’s yards, keeping an eye on things anytime the other one was on vacation. On those trips, the Mangolds would always bring back souvenirs for Thomsen and her sister, she recalled.
Even in her later years, Thomsen recalled Mila Mangold’s “great energy.”
“She’d just go charging all over the neighborhood on foot,” Thomsen said.
Thomsen has fond memories of growing up on Magnolia. The kids on the block, dozens of them, would play outside together all the time. They spraypainted a kickball diamond on the street. They would do the 100-yard dash.
“Nobody would lock their doors,” she said. “It was a quiet little one-block street so you didn’t have to worry about traffic. Everybody would go in at 5 o’clock and watch the Mickey Mouse Club. The original one.”
There are children on the block now, but playing outside has been much less common — until now, she said, when neighborhood kids have taken to carousing outside once again.
“With this pandemic going around, they’re doing stuff I haven’t seen since the 50s and 60s,” she said, then continued: “I used to know everybody on the street. I still think of the various houses in terms of the name of the people who lived there 50 years ago.”
One of those neighbors was called “Major Lucas,” Thomsen said. From what she could recall, he may have been an officer in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
“He was still around when I was a kid,” she said.
“You could just count on her being there in the front yard picking up the oranges”
Despite time’s passage, one thing that hasn’t ever changed, multiple neighbors were happy to report, is the Mangold family car: a light blue 1960 Ford Falcon.
“The same car she drove in the 60s is still in her driveway,” said Thomsen, whose father founded the Tilden Regional Park steam trains and used to build them in the family basement, cutting a hole in the side of the house to get them out when he was done.
Neighbor Byrnes said she was on the sidewalk one day 15 years ago or so when little boys from the block — who have now grown into men — started shouting.
“‘The falcon is coming, the falcon is coming,'” they yelled. “I’m looking up in the sky for some bird. And Mrs. Mangold comes careening around the corner. The muffler is gone and it just rattled like crazy anytime she would come down the block.”
Neighbor Bunce described that Ford Falcon as “ancient” and remembers Mangold, who didn’t stop driving until she was 95, motoring away from her house “at about 5 mph.”
Bunce said Mangold was a constant, reliable presence who never lost her bright personality: “One could never see any sense of decline” even as the years ticked by.
“It’s interesting about a neighborhood,” she said, “people are endearing. They matter to you. Maybe you’re best friends, maybe you’re not. They each matter in their own way, they’re each an addition to your life, to your community.”
She continued: “You could just count on her being there in the front yard picking up the oranges.”
At times, neighborhood children have used those oranges to play games, rolling them down the sidewalk to see how far they could get before rolling off.
On Thursday, multiple neighbors told Berkeleyside about a San Francisco Chronicle story from 2018 about a 110-year-old San Francisco woman, Doris Sperber, who was described at that time as “probably the oldest person in the Bay Area.” As it turned out, Mangold was 2 months older than Sperber, having been born Nov. 14, 1907.
Donald Mangold sent a note to the Chronicle about the error.
“We don’t want to diminish the wonderful accomplishment of Doris Sperber, but merely point out that she is not the oldest resident in the Bay Area,” he wrote, adding that Sperber may well have been San Francisco’s oldest inhabitant. He then added some context about his mother: “She has a patent for a milk carton carrier and wrote a poem that is included in the archives of the Library of Congress.”
On his mother’s actual birthday in November 2019, he said Thursday, the family had some cake at her assisted living facility in El Cerrito and held a “virtual reunion” over Skype, which they began doing 4-5 years ago — pre-pandemic — so Mangold could see her family and let them see her.
On her 100th birthday, Donald recalled, they did have more of an event. People from the family church — a non-denominational congregation at 2430 Dana St. called The Church in Berkeley — were there. Family members flew in for the party, and there were speeches, at the now-shuttered Hs Lordships restaurant at the Berkeley Marina.
Donald recalled that day as “a kind of very special time.”
On Thursday afternoon, many neighbors were more than happy to talk about Mila Mangold when this reporter called to note the occasion of her half-birthday. It was clear that, despite Mangold’s physical move into assisted living, she remains a Magnolia Street institution.
“For someone to be that old on our block is really quite an honor for us,” said Di Napoli. “It’s special to know she’s still here with us and that this is her home.”