Sunnyvale woman celebrates 104th birthday on Leap Day

With a one in 1,461 chance, Leap Day births are an unusual occurrence. Living more than a century is even rarer. Mary Hidalgo is one of the few who is a living embodiment of both.

The Sunnyvale woman celebrated her 26th, or 104th, birthday Thursday at her Murphy Avenue home where she has been living since 1947.

Birthday parties are usually an intimate affair, with close family members and friends gathering for a barbecue at the Santa Clara home of Hidalgo’s eldest daughter, Marlene Kanawyer. This year, however, the Sunnyvale community decided to show their appreciation for one of the city’s oldest residents by parading by her house.

Emerging from the steps with her walker, a blue feather boa and a “Happy Birthday” headband, Hidalgo greeted an adoring crowd of neighbors, friends, first responders and city leaders.

The celebration included serenading Hidalgo with hearty choruses of the “Happy Birthday” song and gifting her bouquets of flowers and Certificates of Recognition from the California State Assembly and City of Sunnyvale congratulating her on the achievement.

“It was so sweet,” said Gloria Montes, Hidalgo’s daughter, who takes care of her mother. “She was so excited. This is the most lively she’s been in two to three months.”

Hidalgo’s close family and friends aren’t surprised by the community’s warm reception or the fact that she’s made it this far. The centenarian is known in Sunnyvale for having an active lifestyle and generous heart for helping others.

“I want to say it’s surprising, but it isn’t,” said long-time neighbor and friend Victoria Schindler. “She was a go-doer. She was always terribly active.”

The daughter of Spanish immigrants, Hidalgo was born in Antioch and moved to Sunnyvale at age 5. During the Great Depression, her father became ill and left 13-year-old the Hidalgo to financially support the family. She dropped out of school to live with her aunt in Monterey and work in the fish canneries. She returned to Sunnyvale a few years later to work for Libby’s Cannery, once one of the world’s largest.

Hidalgo married her husband, Greg Hidalgo, in 1938. During World War II, she worked at Westinghouse as a machinist while Greg served overseas. In 1947, the Hidalgos and their five children moved into their Murphy Avenue home, right next door to Schindler’s family.

“Even though she had five kids, she always had time for me, the good, the bad and the ugly,” Schindler said. “She knew how to handle everything. She was a worker, always.”

Greg, who had lost his legs during the war, and Mary joined the American Legion Auxiliary in 1946. He died in 1962 just as Mary retired from work. Hidalgo continued to volunteer for the organization and logged 20,000 volunteer hours during her 16 years of service at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto.

“There were a lot of veterans that had come back. They didn’t have enough doctors or nurses to nurse the veterans, so we volunteered to help,” Hidalgo said Thursday during an interview at her home before the parade.

Hidalgo also committed herself to 35 years of volunteering as a docent for the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum, first at the old museum in Murphy Park, then at its current location near the Sunnyvale Community Center. She could be seen the first Tuesday of every month, guiding visitors and answering questions about the city’s history. In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then 100-year-old Hidalgo retired from her volunteer position.

Her retirement years also consisted of spending time with her family, including taking a trip to Spain to visit the hometown of her parents. Kanawyer said she cherishes the time she spends with Hidalgo. After all, not everyone can say they have a 104-year-old mother.

“So many of my friends lost their mothers at an early age,” Kanawyer said. “They just always say, ‘God, you’re so fortunate to still have your mother with you.’ “

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