Walter Breuning, believed to be world’s oldest man, 114

By Matt Volz
Associated Press / April 16, 2011

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GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Walter Breuning’s earliest memories stretched back 111 years, before home entertainment came with a twist of the radio dial. They were of his grandfather’s stories of killing Southerners in the Civil War.

Mr. Breuning was 3 and horrified: “I thought that was a hell of a thing to say.’’

But the stories stuck, becoming the first building blocks into what would develop into a deceptively simple philosophy that Mr. Breuning, the world’s oldest man at 114 before he died Thursday, credited to his longevity.

Here is the world’s oldest man’s secret to a long life:

■ Embrace change, even when the change slaps you in the face. (“Every change is good.’’)

■ Eat two meals a day (“That’s all you need.’’)

■ Work as long as you can (“That money’s going to come in handy.’’)

■ Help others (“The more you do for others, the better shape you’re in.’’)

Then there was the hardest part, a lesson Mr. Breuning learned from his grandfather: Accept death.

“We’re going to die,’’ he said. “Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die, because you’re born to die.’’

Mr. Breuning died of natural causes in a Great Falls hospital where he was a patient for much of April with an undisclosed illness. He had been living in a retirement home.

He was the oldest man in the world and the second-oldest person, according to Gerontology Research Group, based in Los Angeles. Besse Cooper of Monroe, Ga., born 26 days earlier, is the world’s oldest person.

In an interview last October, Mr. Breuning recounted the past century — and what its revelations and advances meant to him — with the wit and plain-spokenness that defined him. His life story is, in a way, a slice of the story of the country itself over more than a century.

At the beginning of the new century — that’s the 20th century — Mr. Breuning moved with his family from Melrose, Minn., to De Smet, S.D., where his father had taken a job as an engineer.

That first decade of the 1900s was literally a dark age for his family. They had no electricity or running water. A bath for young Walter would require his mother to fetch water from the well outside and heat it on the coal-burning stove. When they wanted to get around, they had three options: train, horse and foot.

His parents split up, and Mr. Breuning moved back to Minnesota in 1912. The following year, as Henry Ford was creating his first assembly line, the teenager got a low-level job with the Great Northern Railway in Melrose.

That was the beginning of a 50-year career on the railroad. He was a clerk for most of that time, working seven days a week.

In 1918, his boss was promoted to a position in Great Falls, and he asked Mr. Breuning to come along.

There was not a lot keeping Mr. Breuning in Minnesota. His mother had died the year before at age 46, and his father died in 1915 at age 50. The Montana job came with a nice raise, $90 a month for working seven days a week, “a lot of money at that time,’’ he said.

World War I was still raging in Europe, and Mr. Breuning, who had just turned 20, signed up for military service, but was not called up. “So I never got into the war,’’ Mr. Breuning said. “The war ended too quick for me.’’

The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1919, and the nation was riding a postwar wave into the Roaring Twenties.

Walter Breuning bought his first car that year. It was a secondhand Ford and cost just $150.

Mr. Breuning remembered driving around town and spooking the horses that still crowded the dirt streets.

“We had more damn runaways back in those days,’’ Mr. Breuning said. “Horses are just scared of cars.’’

The railroad started laying off people. Mr. Breuning had some seniority, so rather than losing his job, he was transferred to Butte.

It was there he met his future wife, Agnes.

Their friendship turned into a two-year courtship, and then they got married and returned to Great Falls. Great Falls gave Montana its first licensed radio station in 1922. The following year, Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons fought for the world heavyweight championship east of Great Falls in Shelby.

Mr. Breuning was optimistic. He and his wife bought property for $15 and planned to build a house.

Then it all went off the tracks. The Great Depression struck.

“Everybody got laid off in the ’30s,’’ Mr. Breuning said of his neighbors. “Nobody had any money at all. In 1933, they built the civic center over here. Sixty-five cents an hour, you know. That was the wage — big wage.’’

His seniority paid off again; he held onto his job. But he and his wife never built their house. They sold the lot for $25, making a tidy $10 profit. He was a renter for the rest of his life.

World War II lifted the nation out of its economic slump. Industry went into overdrive to support the war. With the men headed overseas to fight, the women took their places in factories.

By that time, Mr. Breuning was in his 40s and too old to be drafted, so he kept working on the railroad.

For Walter Breuning, the 1950s were marked by the death of his wife. Agnes died in 1957 after 35 years of marriage.

Mr. Breuning never remarried.

“Thought about it, that’s about it.’’

He did what he always did. He kept working.

“Don’t retire until you’re darn sure that you can’t work anymore,’’ he said. “Keep on working as long as you can work, and you’ll find that it’s good for you.’’

The same year the Beatles released their first album, Mr. Breuning decided it was time for him to retire from the railroad at age 67. It was 1963, and he had put in 50 years as a railroad worker.

But he stuck by his philosophy and kept working. He became the manager and secretary for the local chapter of the Shriners, a position he held until he was 99.

But he remained a fiercely loyal railroad man, so loyal that he only took an airplane once in his life, to attend the funeral of a relative in Minneapolis.