Walter Breuning was born in Melrose, Minnesota to John Breuning and Cora Morehouse Breuning on 21 September 1896, and had four siblings, two sisters, and two brothers. Later on in life, he claimed to have memories from the 1800s, with his earliest memory he could recall being of his grandfather, a Civil War veteran, telling him stories from the war. In 1901, when he was only 4 or 5, his family moved to De Smet, South Dakota, where he went to school for 9 years until his family broke up in 1910, when Breuning was 14. His family lived without electricity, water, or plumbing. Although his parents died at only 50 and 46, longevity was still present in Breuning’s family. His paternal and maternal grandparents all lived into their 90s, and his siblings lived to the ages of 78, 85, 91, and 100.
In 1910, Breuning dropped out of school and began scraping bakery pans for about $2.50 weekly. He joined the Great Northern Railway in 1913. During his early years, Breuning commented that he would have to hide from owner James J. Hill, as he was hired at the age of 17 and Hill did not want any railroad employees under the age of 18. During World War 1, he signed up to fight, but was never called up and he was a little too old for the second World War.
He moved to Montana in 1918, where he continued working as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway. Breuning worked for the Great Northern Railway until the age of 66, and was also a manager/secretary for the local Shriner’s club until the age of 99.
He married in 1922, and remained married until his wife’s death in 1957. They had no children and Breuning was believed to have never married again, as he thought second marriages don’t work. However, after his death, a marriage certificate was located, revealing that he married Margaret Vanest on 5 October 1958. Margaret died on 15 January 1975.
On his 110th birthday, in September 2006, Breuning was declared the oldest living retired railroader in the United States. In an interview with the Associated Press in Autumn 2010, Breuning stated that he had no fear or rejection of change, also death. He said “We’re all going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you’re born to die”.
Breuning died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes in a Great Falls hospital at 3:30 pm local time on 14 April 2011, just five months shy of his 115th birthday. He had been hospitalized since the beginning of the month with an undisclosed illness.