Stories of our Lives

Walter Breuning (AP Photo)When Walter Breuning died April 14, 2011, at age 114, he passed the title of “world’s oldest man” to Jiroemon Kimura of Japan, who turned 114 on April 19.

Besse Cooper of Monroe, Georgia, a woman who was born 26 days earlier than Breuning, is still the world’s oldest person.

I was pleased that the Associated Press had the foresight to interview Breuning about his life last October at the Rainbow Retirement Community in Great Falls, Montana. AP was fortunate that the retired railroad clerk had not fallen victim to dementia or another condition that affected his memory or ability to speak.

AP produced an obituary that weaves the chronology of Breuning’s life into a timetable of 20th century history – and a few years before and after that century. The AP obit also included Breuning’s secrets for a long life.

The media typically starts gathering biographical information as soon as a person is recognized for being among the most senior citizens on the planet. But simply turning 100 doesn’t rate as much attention nowadays as it did 20 years ago.

Many centenarians outlive their immediate family. Other more distant relatives may not know that person’s history. As a result, centenarian obits usually fail to live up to readers’ expectations.

Surely there must be more to say about individuals who lived longer than a century, than where they were born and who was president of the United States at that time?

Here are a few obits that do say more:

Elizabeth JenningsElizabeth Porter Jennings, 103, of Abilene, Texas, who died April 3, 2011, was a charter member of the Hendrick Hospital Auxiliary, which was formed in 1958. She was still driving her car to the hospital to volunteer at the age of 92.

Her obit included that she was crowned Junior Class Queen and received the BKRMFH Award (Best Kept Room in Mary Frances Hall) while a student at what is now Hardin-Simmons University.

James A. Goodwin, who died April 7, 2011, at age 101, had served as director, president and Lifetime Honorary Director of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society.

His obit in the Hartford Courant provided details about his involvement with mountain climbing, rock climbing and starting a ski team and an outing club at the school where he was a teacher.

Mary BarnesMary Emma Barnes, 102, of Northport, Alabama, who died April 3, 2011, was the daughter of former Northport Mayor Largus Fletcher Barnes.

She held two degrees from the University of Alabama and a master’s in nutrition from Columbia University. Early in her career, she taught at the University of Maryland, the University of Tennessee, and Michigan College.

She later helped establish a state nutrition program for the Georgia Health Department and gave nutrition lectures at Emory University’s School of Medicine and the University of Georgia.


This post was contributed by Alana Baranick, a freelance obituary writer. She was the director of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers and chief author of Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers before she passed away in 2015.