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 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.
In an interview with The Associated Press at his home in the Rainbow Retirement Community in Great Falls last October, 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 — 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 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.
"I'm 16 years old, had to go to work on account of breakup of the family," he said.
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 Breuning to come along.
There wasn't a lot keeping 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.
Breuning, young and alone, was overwhelmed at first. Great Falls was a bustling town of 25,000 with hundreds of people coming and going every day on trains that arrived at all hours.
"You go down to the depot and there'd be 500 people out there all climbing into four trains going in four directions," he said.
World War I was still raging in Europe, and Breuning, who had just turned 20, signed up for military service but wasn't called up. He wanted to join an Army unit formed by Ralph Budd, who was the railroad's vice president at the time and who later would become its president.
He sent Budd an application, and the reply was disappointing. Budd said Breuning couldn't join the unit because he wanted the young man to get a college education. The war ended later that year.
"So I never got into the war. The war ended too quick for me," Breuning said.