headshot of a smiling old man outside
Mel Corren (Photo/Glenn Williams)

Jewish memoirist and icon of Stockton active and Zooming at 97

“I was probably the luckiest GI that ever lived,” says nonagenarian Mel Corren. “And as a result of that, I think I’ve always been interested in giving back.”

The Stockton native spent much of his Army service stationed in Paris from 1944 to 1945, serving his country without ever having to go to the front. Corren writes about those years, and the rest of his life, in his aptly titled memoir “I’ve Lived It, I’ve Loved It!” 

The loquacious 97-year-old first published his book in 2011, then updated it in 2016 after being named the 2015 Stocktonian of the Year. In accepting the award from the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce and Central Valley Association of Realtors, Corren noted that his grandfather, Mendel Corren, immigrated to Stockton from Ukraine in 1901, established a family business and set a civic-minded standard for his heirs to follow.

Corren’s “Grandma Noonie” made “sangwiches” for the poor during the Depression, often recruiting her grandchildren to help.

Corren has served on the boards of the Stockton Symphony and Stockton Civic Theatre, and remains a stalwart supporter of downtown renewal.

“I’ve been very interested in revitalizing [Stockton’s frayed] downtown,” he says. “It’s not easy, [but] we keep trying.”

Corren’s family has long been enmeshed in the local Jewish community, starting with an extended family member who served as religious leader of Stockton’s Rhyim Ahoovim Congregation around the turn of the 20th century. Mendel Corren joined Orthodox congregation Ahavas Achim and then Adas Yeshuran in the late 1930s. Corren provides extensive details in his book about the area’s Jewish community, which remains intrinsic to his life.

As a boy, he and his brother, Hillard, “attended chaider [a school for Jewish children] every weekday after grammar school” and Sunday school next door at the JCC, he writes. “These two handsome buildings were the pride of the Stockton Jewish Community until the 1960s, when the synagogue was declared a hazard and razed.”

In 2011, Corren, his wife, Harriet, and Hillard received the Hineini award from Stockton’s Temple Israel for their years of service to the Jewish community. Harriet was the first woman to serve as board president, a position that Hillard also held. Mel was involved in various projects, including one in which he interviewed and recorded Temple Israel members with interesting histories. All three helped to improve the synagogue building.

Corren still enjoys Shabbat services at Temple Israel — online, due to the pandemic — adding that the Reform synagogue is exploring the resumption of gatherings in the sanctuary. “I’m very happy the way it is,” the tech-savvy Corren says of the virtual arrangement, “though on occasion I think I would want to get dressed” and go to in-person services.

He adds that although he and Harriet “take care of ourselves very well,” he appreciates that fellow congregants “look in on us” to make sure the couple, two months shy of their 74th anniversary, is OK.

He and his brother, Hillard, remain close (“He lives about eight blocks away from me!”). Both began their careers in the family business, M. Corren and Sons furniture store, and 10 years later branched out on their own, launching Brothers Interior Furnishings. They retired in 1998.

Mel Corren began writing about his life in the waning days of his career as a retailer. As big-box stores ate into their bottom line, “we didn’t have much to do in the last year that we were in business,” Corren says. “I bought a Mac [computer] and put it in the back of the office, and I would sit down every day and write a few memories that I had. I have a wonderful memory for everything that happened in the past, though my wife says I can’t remember anything!”

His 196-page paperback is filled with historic photos. “My grandmother was a collector of photos of the family,” he explains, and a friend gave him access to images of Stockton in bygone days.

While Corren and his wife no longer travel widely,  he still thrives on local activity. He is active in a writers group that meets weekly (the outgrowth of a writing class he took through University of the Pacific’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), and still meets with his French club for food and conversation.

Does he ever get nostalgic for the simpler days of his youth? “Constantly,” he replies. “It is such a changing world.”

At the same time, Corren embraces the internet and other modern conveniences. “I’m glad that I really picked up on that,” he says. “We keep in the era,” he says of himself and Harriet, a native San Franciscan whom he met on a blind date.

Though Corren’s memoir has not made him rich (“When I wrote the book and first published it, I was ecstatic. I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be flying first class!’”), it presents a full picture of a life well lived.

“I use my books like a calling card,” he says.

As for the future, who knows? The father of two notes that he has recently become a great-grandfather: “I ought to write a new book about that!”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.