Hunter Weeks met Walter Breuning in 2010 when Walter was 113 years old. After hours of chatting about life, Walter’s wisdom had begun to seep into Hunter’s psyche. A year later, Hunter was still thinking about Walter. After a week of encouraging words from his fiancée and days of staring at a greeting card she set aside for him, Hunter made a move. He sent a note to see if Walter would be interested in being a part of a movie. It just so happened, he was.
It wasn’t long before Hunter was able to sit down with Walter Breuning again for an in-depth interview about life in the early 1900s while offering up his takeaways from an extraordinarily long life. The trip meant leaving behind new fiancée, Sarah, for what would have been the couple’s first Valentine’s Day together. Proving to be a good match, there was no love lost about Hunter’s Valentine’s Day excursion to sit down with Walter at his home in Great Falls, Montana. The visit was a success.
Walter could talk at length about his earliest memories like his first haircut, his paper route, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He remembered the roaring 20s, the Great Depression, and both World Wars. He talked about the importance of exercise, and eating well. He loved politics and baseball. Walter found great importance in working and suggested people work as long as they could. But his most important piece of advice was to help other people. Walter firmly believed that helping people was the best thing a person could do. Walter and his wife Agnes never had children of their own, so they used their free time to help out at the school. They were able to lend a hand to neighbors and friends that needed it, especially during the hard years. When Walter moved into the Rainbow Senior Living home in 1980, he had little family. For over 30 years, the residents and staff became Walter’s trusted friends, his extended family.
Hunter’s meeting with Walter went so well that when he returned home, he knew that Walter wasn’t the only supercentenarian he wanted to meet. He started researching the world’s oldest people and discovered there were not only incredible super seniors dotting the globe but there was an entire sub-culture devoted to tracking and studying supercentenarians. The film took off when Hunter’s fiancée, Sarah E. Hall, decided to quit her job in television to work on the film. The couple set out immediately to meet “supers” and enter production full time.
From a studio apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, Hunter and Sarah began contacting folks around the globe. Their filming schedule was near constant as Hunter tried to capture every moment in their process. The pair visited historical societies to get a better idea of happenings and a visual sense of the past for their interviews with super centenarians. The Melrose Historical Society had extensive knowledge of Walter Breuning. Since Melrose, Minnesota was Walter’s birthplace, Melrose Historical Society had census documents, photographs, and anecdotes of the early railroad days. James J. Hill, a storied Twin Cities railroad baron, had been Walter’s boss at one time. According to Walter, he was younger than Hill’s requirement of 18 years old and whenever Hill came to Melrose to visit, Walter had to hide.
The Paris Historical Society in Texas also held information about one of the subjects in the film. Mary Tankursley was born in Paris, TX and lived there for much of her young life. Mary recalled a great fire in Paris, she laughed recounting her first days of driving, and laughed with her two daughters as she talked about being a working mother. Maxine and Carolyn, Mary’s daughter’s spoke of the changing environment. Though their mother was working, they always felt safe at home. They had good reading materials, a strong church community, and clean radio shows. Maxine felt that they didn’t have to combat the things children of today face, that in many ways, it was a simpler time. Carolyn mentioned that their home was always filled with laughter and close family bonds. Skipper Steely, from the Paris Historical Society, said that Mary always lived in the present, took care of her friends, driving them to appointments well into her late 90s, she cooked full, healthy meals, and was always quick to smile.
Ruth Anderson, the oldest person in Minnesota and the current oldest singleton twin kept her brain sharp by playing regular Scrabble games. Ruth was such an accomplished player that she had a special certificate from Milton Bradley as well as a custom game board from the company. Her astounding longevity had captured the attention of both President G.W. Bush and President Barack Obama – birthday letters from both hung on a memory board on the wall of Ruth’s room at Avera Morningside Care Center. Ruth grew up on a farm in Minnesota, speaking both English and Swedish. A hint of an accent lingers in her speech. One of Ruth’s earliest responsibilities was driving a horse, from a buggy, around the grain elevator. She grew up hard working and active in the church. Ruth married late in life. When her sister died, leaving a husband and several children, Ruth stepped in to help raise her nieces and nephews. At 112, Ruth’s family has returned the love and dedication, visiting daily and showering her with drawings, poems, and photos of smiling faces.
At the time of filming, the world’s oldest person was a schoolteacher from Georgia. Besse Cooper was originally from Tennessee. Born in 1896, she knew she wanted to be a teacher early on. Besse grew up on a farm where her family grew everything, only buying coffee, salt, and sugar. She grew to be very self-sufficient. After earning her college degree, Besse taught school until she had a family. Besse lived in her small town Georgia farmhouse into her early 100s. Her grandson, Paul, grew very close to her and visited her every day at her care center. They developed a strong bond and Paul credits her with helping to make him the man he is. It was obvious that the two trusted each other above anyone else. Unable to carry on long conversations, Paul could often talk to Besse and interpret her responses on occasions in which she was too weak to communicate. Besse received the world’s oldest person title twice, once at 114, and again at 115. She was overthrown in between when Maria Gomes Valentim of Brazil was confirmed to be older. In 2012, a bridge in Monroe County, Georgia was named after Besse Cooper, in honor of her longevity.
One woman in particular was a bit controversial during filming. Juana Bautista of Cuba claimed to be 126 years old. Since there’s no medical way to confirm the age of a living person, researchers rely on documents, family accounts, and scientific studies on aging. Juana Bautista seemed to have some paperwork, though a fire did burn many of her documents years ago. While Guinness World Records consultants have never been formally requested to verify Juana’s age, gerontologist Robert Young doubts the claim.
The oldest living person on record was Jeanne Calment of France. At 122 years old, Jeanne Calment could not walk, hear, see, or speak very well, nor did she have much strength for any sort of daily activity. In the case of Juana, she could converse easily, walk on her own, and she had very visible strength in her extremities. Also perplexing was that Juana’s children seemed to be rather young to have a mother as old as 126. In spite of the conflicts regarding her age, Juana maintained that her secrets to such a long, happy life included doing good for other people and keeping a heart full of love. Her family bonds were strong, her diet was lean and organic, and as Cuban ideology also suggests, communism contributed to a calm mind.
Faith had been a strong component in the lives of many of the subjects interviewed for WALTER, but only one woman viewed her faith as the sole component for her fulfillment. Sister Cecilia Guadette spent most of her life in the service of the Catholic Church. A nun from New Hampshire, Sister Cecilia has spent the past 50 years in Europe, primarily in France and Italy. From a convent in Rome, she recalled World War II experiences, alongside her friend, Sister Mary. She attributes her good health and abundant happiness to “the Lord’s work” and believes she will die peacefully because she has no physical pains. Sister Cecilia remains a firm fixture in the convent, always attending meals and prayer with her sisters. She loves politics and social issues and advises people to always live a life filled with love, joy, and kindness.
The principles of supercentenarians around the world rang so true with the filmmakers that they decided to focus more on these lessons rather than try to dissect scientific studies determining methods for longevity. “Everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing,” producer Sarah E. Hall said, “Eat balanced meals, exercise, play brain games, and don’t hang on to stress. We didn’t want to preach the same old thing to people.”
Director Hunter Weeks credits the film for changing his outlook on life. “I used to be very concerned with aspects of my life that caused a lot of stress but didn’t pay back in any real way. Meeting these super centenarians taught me to enjoy life rather than just muscle my way through it.” The filmmakers, who married during production, realized their need for balance in their lives. With a hectic lifestyle, the couple decided to settle in a smaller city, plant a vegetable garden, and carve out more time for outdoor activities and social functions.
The project has also changed their outlook on death. “It’s scary because it’s mysterious, even though it’s part of the natural cycle. But if you focus on the good you can do and feeding your soul, the fulfillment overcomes the fear.” Sarah said. Walter Breuning always offered that people shouldn’t be afraid to die because it’s what we’re born to do. While it’s logical, Hunter sees it more as the final task on a to-do list. “It’s going to happen to all of us at some point. But that doesn’t mean we have to center on it. There’s so much to enjoy out of life, we just need to seek out goals and live fully while we can.”
WALTER is more than a how-to film about longevity. It’s a story of history, culture, love, relationships, and purpose. Though there is no sure way to live long, WALTER explores the ways in which to live well for whatever time we have.