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Born in 1896, Walter Breuning's life story pretty much encapsulates the rise of modern America. Breuning, who died on Thursday at 114,  lived in Montana and was just 26 days younger than Besse Cooper of Georgia who holds the record for the oldest living person. He could remember as far back as the turn-of-the-century when his father told him about killing Southerners in the Civil War. 

The Minnesota-native started working for the railroad at the age of 16 and signed up to fight in World War I at age 20, though he was never called up for service. In 1919, the year women earned the right to vote, Breuning bought his first car and complained about how the noisy machine scared horses away. The Depression hit, and though he felt lucky to keep his job, Breuning thought President Franklin Roosevelt's signing Social Security into law was the nation's greatest achievement. By the time America joined World War II, Breuning was too old to fight, and by the time the Beatles released their first album, the rail veteran had retired. Computers changed the railroad industry, and even though many of his friends were made redundant in the process, the longtime clerk thinks the machines are a good thing.

After moving into a retirement home in the 1980s, Breuning spent his time just talking. Here's a bit of advice he left for generations to come:

  • "The more you do for others, the better shape you're in."
  • "Don't retire until you're darn sure that you can't work anymore. Keep on working as long as you can work and you'll find that it's good for you."
  • "How many people in this country say that they can't take the weight off? 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.'"
  • "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."
  • "I think every change that we've ever made, ever since I was a child – 100 years – every change has been good for the people. My God, we used to have to write with pen and ink, you know, (for) everything. When the machines came, it just made life so much easier."
  • "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."
  • "Life begins each morning whether we have succeeded or failed or just muddled along. Life is a school to learn, not to unlearn."
  • "We're all going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you're born to die."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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