Walter Breuning (b. September 21, 1896 – d. April 14, 2011) was the oldest verified American man ever.
Walter Breuning was born in Melrose, Minnesota. He was the son of John Breuning and Cora Morehouse Breuning, and had two brothers and two sisters. In 1901 when he was 5, his family moved to De Smet, South Dakota, where he went to school for nine years until his family broke up in 1910. Breuning referred to this time as "the dark ages", as his family lived without electricity, water, or plumbing. Apart from his parents who died at 50 and 46, longevity runs in Breuning's family. His paternal and maternal grandparents lived into their 90s and his siblings lived to ages 78, 85, 91 and 100. His only surviving family are 1 niece and 3 nephews all now in their 80s, plus great-nieces and great-nephews.
In 1910 aged 14, Breuning dropped out of school and began scraping bakery pans for $2.50 weekly. He joined the Great Northern Railway in 1913, working for it for more than fifty years. During his early years, Breuning commented that he would have to hide from owner James J. Hill, as Hill did not want any railroad employees under the age of 18 (Breuning was first hired at age 17). Breuning worked for the Great Northern Railway until age 66, and was also a manager/secretary for the local Shriner's club until age 99. During World War I, he signed up for military service, but was never called up. When World War II broke out, he was too old to serve. He moved to Montana in 1918, where he continued working as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway. There, he met Agnes Twokey, a telegraph operator from Butte. He was married to her from 1922 until her death in 1957. They had no children and Breuning was believed to have never married again, as he stated that "Second marriages never work; even first marriages don't work today." However, after his death, a marriage certificate was located, revealing that he married Margaret Vanest on October 5, 1958. Margaret died on January 15, 1975.
Breuning was a Freemason, and a member of Great Falls Lodge No. 118, Great Falls, Montana, for over 85 years. He held the 33rd Degree of the Scottish Rite.
In later years
Breuning lived at the Rainbow Retirement and Assisted Living Center in Great Falls, Montana for 32 years, moving in when it was 'The Rainbow Hotel' in 1979 when he was 83. The Rainbow Hotel turned into Rainbow Assisted Living Center in 1996. Each year starting with his 100th, The Rainbow held a Birthday Party for Breuning. As he became older, and especially after gaining the title of Oldest Living Man in July 2009, the world media flocked to these occasions, if only to hear Breuning's annual birthday speech.
Breuning was a lifelong cigar smoker, but says in an interview at age 110 that he quit in 1999 when he was 103, saying they had become too expensive. However, at the age of 108 he briefly started smoking again, encouraged by gifts of cigars from as far away as London. Breuning retained a sharp memory. For example, he could remember his grandfather talking about his experiences in the American Civil War when he was three years old, and remembered the day President William McKinley was shot as the day "I got my first haircut".
On his 112th birthday, Breuning said the secret to long life is being active: "If you keep your mind busy and keep your body busy, you're going to be around a long time."
Breuning dressed in a suit and tie every day. On April 24, 2009, at the age of 112, Breuning was interviewed on CBS by Steve Hartman for Assignment America. When asked by Hartman if he would do a second CBS interview in four years, Breuning said, "Well hell you sure can!"
On his 110th birthday, in September 2006, Breuning was declared the oldest living retired railroader in the United States. The Governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, and the city mayor attended his celebration.
On February 16, 2009, Breuning made an appearance on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, giving his views about the current state of the economy and the newly elected president. Breuning said that the first president he ever voted for was Woodrow Wilson, and that the most memorable news item he ever heard about in his life was the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He also described life during the Great Depression.
On April 24, 2009, Breuning was the focus of a segment done by Steve Hartman's "Assignment America" on the CBS Evening News and on July 21, 2009, he was the focus of another such segment. During his 113th birthday celebrations, Breuning said: "Remember that life's length is not measured by its hours and days, but by that which we have done therein. A useless life is short if it lasts a century. There are greater and better things in us all, if we would find them out. There will always be in this world - wrongs. No wrong is really successful. The day will come when light and truth and the just and the good shall be victorious and wrong as evil will be no more forever."
The BNSF Railway named the west end of its new Broadview Subdivision, where it meets the ex-Great Northern Laurel Subdivision near Broadview, Montana, Walter Junction after Breuning. He was present at the dedication of the new line, which serves the Signal Peak Mine, on September 2, 2009.
On February 25, 2010, Breuning was honored by Montana Ambassadors for shining a spotlight on the state of Montana.
Health history and habits
In 1960, age 64, Breuning was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was successfully treated and the cancer did not return. Breuning did not have any other health issues until he broke his hip at the age of 108. He spent eight days in the hospital and was totally healed in 21 days. In November 2007 at the age of 111, Breuning was fitted with hearing aids. The week before his 113th birthday in September 2009, Breuning fell and bruised his scalp, but was otherwise unhurt. Breuning was in excellent health, walking unaided and refusing to use the elevator to reach his second floor apartment until he broke his hip. Breuning began to slow down physically in his last year, requiring first a walker and then a motor scooter to get around although his mental state was undiminished to the end.
Breuning attributed much of his longevity to his diet. Shortly after his wife died, Breuning started eating out at restaurants. Eventually, he stopped eating out, but continued eating two meals a day. He ate a big breakfast and a hearty lunch but skipped an evening meal, snacking on fruit instead. Breuning drank lots of water through the day plus a cup and a half of coffee with breakfast and one cup with lunch. He got up every day at 6:15 a.m. and had breakfast at 7:30 a.m. He then took a stroll around The Rainbow for exercise and could then be found sitting in the lobby chatting with fellow residents and his many visitors. Breuning would retire to his room in mid-afternoon to listen to radio and when his vision allowed him, read the newspaper and his many letters received from people from all over the world.
Overall, Breuning was in good health almost all of his life. His weight was around the same for the last 50 years of his life, 125–130 pounds (57–59 kg). Because Breuning was 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 m), his body mass index was around 19. For years Breuning took a baby aspirin everyday, but he eventually gave that up stating that he didn't need it, from there on he took no medication. Breuning believed another key to his longevity was keeping his mind and body active, not retiring until the age of 99. He performed daily calisthenics almost to the end. He could not read well because his eyesight was badly impaired by cataracts, but he kept himself occupied mentally by listening to the radio.
In an interview with the Associated Press in autumn 2010, Breuning stated that he had no fear or rejection of change – especially death. "We're all going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you're born to die," he said.
Breuning died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes in a Great Falls hospital at 3:30 p.m. local time on April 14, 2011. He had been hospitalized since the beginning of the month with an undisclosed illness. At the time of his death, he was the 3rd oldest living person in the world, and the oldest male.
Before he died, Breuning shared a prayer with his pastor. He said "Talked to Him this morning. Reminded Him of our agreement." His pastor asked what the agreement was. He said, "If I'm not going to get better, I'm supposed to go now."