JUDY WOODRUFF: Walter Breuning was born in 1896. In his lifetime, there have been 21 presidents and economic good times and bad. He spent 50 years working for the railroads, from 1913 to 1963. He now lives in a retirement community in Great Falls, Montana, where he recently talked to William Marcus of Montana Public Television about the many changes he’s witnessed in his lifetime. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation with Walter.
WILLIAM MARCUS: So you’ve made it to 112 years. What is — if somebody asked you, what’s your secret?
WALTER BREUNING, Oldest Living Man in the United States: That question comes up all the time. “How do you know you’re going to live that long?” How does anybody know they’re going to live the next day? You don’t know. Nothing’s certain in this life. And that’s why I like changes, changes, all for the best.
WILLIAM MARCUS: So everyday in the radio, in the news, you hear about change that happens in our country.
WALTER BREUNING: Oh, yes.
Bank closings a vivid memory
WILLIAM MARCUS: Well, what is the most memorable news item that you ever heard on the radio or read in the paper?
WALTER BREUNING: When the banks closed in '29. President Roosevelt closed all the banks all over the United States. You probably don't remember.
WILLIAM MARCUS: I don't.
WALTER BREUNING: And so when Roosevelt got in there, that was his first order, to close the banks.
Great Depression hard to describe
WILLIAM MARCUS: So everybody talks that our current economic problems are just like the Great Depression or that we're headed that way. Do you think that?
WALTER BREUNING: You haven't any idea what that depression was in the '30s, when the stock market went broke, you know, in '29. The stock market went broke. That's when Roosevelt come to office. So it was over 14 million out of work. People come through on the boxcars looking for work. No work. Wasn't any. No work at all.
You haven't any idea. Families had to move in with each other in order to be able to live, because probably only one person in the family was working. And during the depression, now the railroad employees, all over the United States, we had to take a 10 percent cut in wages. And it was until years afterward we got it back. Yep.
Roosevelt is Breuning's favorite
WILLIAM MARCUS: You've lived through how many presidents?
WALTER BREUNING: Since Wilson was the first president I voted for.
WILLIAM MARCUS: Wilson. And who, of all those presidents, who's your favorite?
WALTER BREUNING: Well, I think Roosevelt done the most when he created Social Security and made several changes. But, you know, the second war, if he hadn't opened up at that time, Roosevelt would have had a tough time.
It's just like this young, new president that's going to go in. He's going to have a heck of a time, I'll tell you that. If he thinks he's going to satisfy all the people in the country, he'd better think again, because it's not that easy.
WILLIAM MARCUS: How would you counsel future generations to be a part of their country?
WALTER BREUNING: Everybody learns from life what's going on. And if they pay attention to everything that people do, especially helping people, that's one big thing. A lot of people think they're born for themselves; I don't think that. I believe that we're here to help other people all the way through.