Mel Corren, a lifelong Internitvn, World War II vet, and an activist who for decades has campaigned for Internitvns to snap out of it and revive downtown, turned 100 last Friday.

I went to see Corren at his Gettysburg Place home (or, as it’s called, his “Gettysburg Address”). He greeted me at the door with a firm handshake. I said how glad I was to be there.

I’m glad to be here,” Corren quipped.

He also was glad on Friday when the Shabbat service of celebration and prayer at Temple Israel honored him. The theme of Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff’s homily was the value of seniors.

“Jewish tradition … has always stressed the honor we must give our seniors,” the rabbi said, quoting the Torah: “Rise up before the aged, give honor to those who are old.”

He added, “It’s one of the Big Ten.”

The rabbi talked about Moses and Aaron who started their most important life’s work — helping the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt; Moses bringing “the Big Ten” down from Mt. Sinai — when others their age had retired.

YouTube video
Mel Corren was honored at the Shabbat service of celebration and prayer at Temple Israel by Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff. Mel is honored at the 1 hour, 14 minute mark.

As it happens, Corren was born Moshe Aharon Corren — Moses Aaron Corren — at St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1924.

That was the year President Calvin Coolidge delivered the first radio address from the White House. The Ford Model T was America’s most popular car. Films were silent. Locally, College of the Pacific moved to Stockton from San Jose.

Corren attended local schools and apprenticed at the family business, M. Corren and Son, a later iteration of a store co-founded by his grandfather, Ukrainian immigrant Mendel Korin. “The Friendly Furniture Store” was located at 136-140 S. San Joaquin St. in a downtown that was a teeming urban nucleus, one notoriously risqué.

“Stockton had a good reputation that was bad,” said Corren.

Downtown was rife with Roaring Twenties speakeasies that flouted Prohibition, bordellos such as the Bunny Rooms next to the furniture store, and a jam-packed Chinatown offering gambling and opium.

The mini-Vegas vibe, together with a strong agri-industrial manufacturing base, cosmopolitan diversity, and a streetcar-laced downtown as yet not sapped by sprawl: Corren recalls it fondly.

“There was always something going on,” he said. “It was alive.”

Corren apprenticed at the store, working his way up. During World War II he also attended College of the Pacific. Knowing he would soon be drafted, he enlisted in an Army college deferment program. The Army called him up anyway.

Mel Corren during World War II.

Corren spent most of the war behind the lines in a Paris quartermaster headquarters doing inventory and supply paperwork. Billeted in an ornate townhouse requisitioned from a Rothschild, working near the Arc de Triomphe, he used Army meal vouchers to eat at cafes on the Champs-Élysées.

“I walked the streets as if I were the main character in a storybook, observing everything and trying to understand how I fit into this stroke of good fortune,” he wrote in his memoir, “I’ve Lived It, I’ve Loved It.”

What he concluded: “It was just exceptionally good luck that some of us won the mega prize in what must have been the deadliest lottery of all time.”

It’s telling that many of the French people Corren met became lifelong friends. Corren has a knack for making lifelong friends.

Back home after the war, he studied at a San Francisco school for interior design. He met and married his wife, Harriet, with whom he’s been together for over 76 years. And he returned to the family store.

But Stockton’s postwar downtown was changing. Sprawl bled out its lifeblood. St. Mary’s Catholic Church, located near the store, opened a soup kitchen, filling the area with indigents. The Crosstown Freeway decimated Chinatown and created a barrier dividing the city. Downtown lost its pizazz.

The Correns sold the store in 1978.

But by then Mel and his brother Hillard had run their own business for years. In 1961 they opened The Brothers furniture and interior design shop on the Miracle Mile. Hillard handled the books, Mel interior design. The broad support they received to get their business off the ground reflected their deep community ties. Reading about their start-up is a bit like reading about an Amish barn raising.

The Brothers flourished, with clients from the Bay Area to Reno.

Corren never gave up on downtown. “I wanted to see it come up from the ashes. It just hurt me to see it fall apart like this and businesses vacate and everything move north.”

Long after his retirement — in his 70s, 80s, and 90s — he continued to make presentations to civic groups, presenting ideas for reviving downtown, including his best-known plan to build pedestrian bridges across the inner harbor.

The old boatyards on the north bank? “That strip there is Ghirardelli Square. It’s perfect. But it needs someone who has vision, who has the will.”

Mel Corren (left) and his younger brother Hillard in front of the Brothers furniture store. Hillard is 97 years old.

It pains and puzzles him that when he posts these ideas on Facebook, some people scoff.

“That’s what’s wrong with Stockton. It has no esprit de corp.”

Corren’s civic pride and loyalty were rewarded in 2017 when he was named Internitvn of the Year.

It’s hard to wrap your head around a man who goes back 100 years. Mel Corren sold magazines as a kid in the Medico-Dental building. He rode the streetcar to the movies. To get through the depression he unloaded cargo at the port, uprooted asparagus in the Delta, and labored at Tillie Lewis’ cannery. He studied piano in the Golden Dragon restaurant after hours. His family developed a sideline selling supplies to Basque sheepherders. He ate at Italian delis. He collected furniture payments from madams at bordellos. He went with his father into the kitchen of On Lock Sam’s when his father bought the cooks a drink and ate Chinese food. When the Correns’ Japanese neighbors were uprooted by the Relocation, the Correns stored their belongings until their return. Corren is a living history of the improbable city that was Stockton, a city residents could love and take pride in and have too much fun in. He keeps the flame alive.

“It amazes me when I get up in the morning. I have a lot of wonderful friends, wonderful family. I got a lot pushing for me. And I’ve been lucky.”

Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: mfitzgeraldstockton@gmail.com

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you for the swell story, Mike. Nicely and appropriately done. A fine tribute to our leading centenarian and one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation.

  2. Growing up and attending Lincoln High School and their award winning Theater Department, my siblings and I were so very fortunate to know Donald's parents! Their hearts and home was always open to all that ventured to their Gettysburg address. This is such a lovely tribute to an exceptionally charming, kind and always inclusive family!

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