Life Advice from Walter Breuning

Photograph by Larry Beckner

Editors Note: Walter Breuning died Thursday, April 14, 2011, at age 114. Just months before his death, he spoke with MJ about a long lifetime’s worth of wisdom.

What adventure most changed your life?
I went to work for the Great Northern Railway in 1913, when I was 16, and in 1918 they transferred me from Minnesota to Great Falls, Montana. I still debate myself whether I made a good move or not. But that’s where I met Agnes. She was a railroad telegrapher, and I was one of the clerks. I said, “Let’s go up and eat,” and she thought I was going too fast. That’s how it started, going to dinner at midnight after we’d get through working. We got married in 1922. She passed away in 1957.

What should every man know about money?
If you don’t know how to handle money, there’s no use in making any because you’re going to waste it. When I first got married, everybody had charge accounts at the stores, and you spend more that way. So we decided to pay cash for everything. We darn near starved to death for a couple of weeks until we got ourselves organized.

What’s the best cure for heartache?
Crackers. If you’ve got a heart pain during the night, get up and eat one cracker and you’ll be surprised what that does for you. Oh, like a broken heart? I’ll tell you, time cures everything.

When is it OK for a man to lie?
It’s better if you tell the truth from the go. You’ll find it works out a lot better. The truth don’t kill nobody.

What article of clothing should every man own?
A tie. Most men now never wear one. They don’t want to tie it. I never felt dressed up unless I had a tie on. I used to wear one even when I went fly-fishing.

What piece of gear should every man own?
A hearing aid. When you can’t hear, you can’t do nothin’.

What skill should every man have?
The skill of being kind to people. In today’s world, everybody is mean to each other. But if you can help other people, you help yourself at the same time. You do, really. I used to walk all over town every morning after breakfast, and one day a lady stopped me and tied my loose shoestring. Well, I could’ve fallen down, you know. You see, it’s the little things.

Do you have a scar that tells a story?
I had an operation 50 years ago – left a scar clear across my stomach. Colon cancer. They took all the cancer out of me, took out my spleen, mud machine, everything. Never had no trouble since.

What’s your biggest regret?
So many times I look back now and wish I hadn’t done certain things. But nobody’s perfect. I can remember from when I was three years old, hearing my grandfather telling us how many people he had shot in the Civil War. I thought that was a terrible thing, to remember shooting somebody.

What advice would you give the younger you?
Don’t retire too young. If you do, you haven’t got no place to go. Also, memorize things that happen to you as a kid, and keep remembering them. Fifty years, 100 years from now, those will be your memories. I remember lots of things from back then. When I was four years old, I got my first haircut. I had long curls. The barber turned down my ear, and I cried like a darn fool.

How should a man best face his fears?
Fear? Actually, there is no fear. So many people are afraid to die, and there’s no use being afraid. You’re born to die – everybody. Eventually that’s what happens, and maybe it’s good, maybe bad. It depends on what you did during your life. If you take care of your life, God will take care of you. Amen.

How does a man survive to be 114 years old?
Well, some people can handle themselves at 50; some people can’t handle themselves at 100. It all depends on taking care of the mind and body.