GREAT FALLS – With all the attention both of them have received in recent years in this part of the country, you’d think they’d be well acquainted.
Walter Breuning, after all, is the world’s oldest man at 113, and Edwinna “Winnie” Engellant has been in the news herself for her graceful ballroom dancing past her 103rd birthday.
But on March 5 in the lobby of the Rainbow Retirement Community in downtown Great Falls was the first time the two celebrities had ever sat down to chat.
And chat they did, about the toll that time takes on the human body, about media sensations and about technological advancements.
Everything but the weather.
The meeting came about because of a conversation Engellant had with Kendra Owen of Great Falls on a recent drive to Fort Benton.
Owen mentioned that she would like to meet Breuning. Engellant said she met Breuning in 2006 when she had her photo taken with him but had not had a chance to talk with him.
Owen asked a neighbor who has visited Breuning regularly over the years how a meeting between the centenarians could be arranged, and the neighbor jumped at the chance to help.
“Kendra’s the kind of girl who gets things done,” Engellant said.
Both centenarians saw the integration of the automobile into society. Both drove Fords as their first vehicles, and both paid less than $500 for them. Engellant’s Ford had curtains in it. Breuning bought his used for $250.
“Cars weren’t like they are today,” Breuning said. “We had to shift gears then. Now they go 100 miles an hour.”
“We sure appreciated the horses,” Engellant said. She said she used to have hair so long she could almost sit on it, and she would let it down when she was running the horses to feel it blowing in the wind.
Both agreed that computers have caused one of the greater impacts on how people live today.
When he found out that Engellant lives alone, Breuning suggested she “ought to be in a place like (the Rainbow Retirement Community).”
She said her failing eyesight requires her to ask for help more often but that she has friends like Owen who check in on her.
“I can’t see a damn thing,” responded Breuning. “I can’t read the paper. I listen to the radio. But I can still write a check and sign it.”
Engellant said she uses a video eye for her reading, but she said the newspaper still is a challenge. Despite the challenge, Engellant said she still likes to read “the good news.”
Breuning said there is too much hatred in the world. “If we could just be kind to each other...” he said.
Engellant said her mother raised her on the same type of principles. “My mother preached the 10 Commandments,” she said.
Even so, Breuning said today’s world is so much better now than it was just a few years ago, to which Engellant replied, “It’s good, but we don’t appreciate it enough.”
Remembering their youth, the two found common ground in the “good old days” when electricity and running water were either unavailable or a slick luxury, and there was no such thing as an eight-hour work day.
Engellant was raised on a farm and ranch, and became a farm/ranch wife in the Geraldine area when she married John Engellant.
She said work didn’t just stop after a certain time every day, and there were no days off.
“I raised calves,” she said. “We had (to bring the calves) in the house if the mother was lost (during birth) and feed them with a bottle.”
Likewise, when Engellant asked Great Northern retiree Breuning if he enjoyed dancing, he replied, “I didn’t have time to learn to dance. I was always working. I worked until I was 99, and two jobs most of the time.”
Breuning, who puts on a sharp suit and tie every morning, found a kindred spirit in Engellant.
Although she grew up without wealth, Engellant said she always liked to look nice.
“People would come over to the ranch and ask me if I was going somewhere,” she said. “I wasn’t going anywhere. I just like dresses. Overalls weren’t made for women.”
Later, Engellant, curious about Breuning’s childhood, asked about his favorite memory, and he recounted his first.
“I was 4 years old when I got my first haircut,” he said. “I had long curls, don’t ask me why, but I cried like a baby when (my hair) got cut off.“
“I try to remember things,” she said. “But there’s so many, my brain gets crowded.“
When Engellant asked Breuning for advice on living as long as he has, Breuning told her to keep moving, helping others and exercising.
Engellant agreed, saying that her doctor told her to keep on dancing, which has been her passion since she was about 8 years old.
“You might catch up with me,” Breuning told Engellant.