GREAT FALLS, MT. – Walter Breuning, the world’s oldest man at 115, died Thursday.
His earliest memories stretched back 111 years, before home entertainment came with a twist of the radio dial. They were of his grandfather’s tales of killing Southerners in the Civil War.
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 Breuning, the world’s oldest man at 114 before he died Thursday, credited to his longevity.
Here’s 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’s the hardest part. It’s a lesson Breuning said he learned from his grandfather: Accept death.
“We’re going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you’re born to die,” he said.
Breuning died of natural causes in a Great Falls hospital where he had been a patient for much of April with an undisclosed illness, said Stacia Kirby, spokeswoman for the Rainbow Senior Living retirement home where Breuning lived.
He was the oldest man in the world and the second-oldest person, according to the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group. Besse Cooper of Monroe, Ga. — born 26 days earlier — is the world’s oldest person.
Breuning had lived in a sparse studio apartment in the Rainbow Senior Living retirement center since 1980.When he was recognized as the world’s oldest man and brought the retirement home some notoriety, he was offered a larger room. Breuning said no, Rainbow executive director Tina Bundtrock said in October.
Breuning would spent his days in an armchair outside the Bundtrock’s office in a dark suit and tie, sitting near a framed Guinness certificate proclaiming him the world’s oldest man.
He would eat breakfast and lunch and then retire to his room in the early afternoon. He’d visit the doctor just twice a year for checkups and the only medication he would take was aspirin, Bundtrock said.
His good health was due to his strict diet of two meals a day, Breuning said.
“How many people in this country say that they can’t take the weight off?” he said. “I tell these people, I says, ‘Get on a diet and stay on it. You’ll find that you’re in much better shape, feel good.’”
He had no family left but a niece and a nephew. They visited a couple of times at the retirement home, but they were strangers to him, he said.
Breuning’s real family, his support group, was there in the Rainbow.
“Yeah, we’re all one big family, I tell you that. We all talk to each other all the time. That’s what keeps life going. You talk,” he said.
Breuning talked current affairs with the other residents. One of his main causes was to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“War never cured anything. Look at the North and South right today. They’re still fighting over the damn war. They’ll never get over that,” he said.
Along with debating others about the fate of the nation, Breuning also spent time a lot of time reflecting. Sitting in his armchair, he would reach back across the century and lose himself in a flood of memories that began with his grandfather’s Civil War stories.
He also thought about what might have been. After 97 years in Montana, Breuning said he thought back to his transfer to Great Falls back in 1913.
What course would he have gone on, how different would that century have been for him if he had stayed in Minnesota?
“Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I not moved to Great Falls. I think about that once in a while. What would have happened?” Breuning said. “I had a good job back (in Minnesota). But life is good here too.”
But he didn’t regret anything, and he implored others to follow his philosophy.
“Everybody says your mind is the most important thing about your body. Your mind and your body. You keep both busy, and by God you’ll be here a long time,” he said.