The Washington Post
2022 Meet the centenarian who’s worked at the same company for 84 years
Walter Orthmann vividly recalls his first day of work. He was 15 and eager to make a good impression. Young Walter woke at 4 a.m. and began the long trek to the factory an hour later. The apprehensive teenager covered the five-mile route with plenty of time to spare before his 6 a.m. shift in the shipping department.
That was 84 years ago, and Orthmann is still on the job. He turned 100 on April 19 and holds the title for the longest career at the same company, according to Guinness World Records. In fact, his birthday was celebrated as a holiday at the firm, Renauxview, a textile manufacturer in Brusque, Brazil.
“The whole plant was shut down and all employees were invited along with clients, suppliers, my family, friends and dignitaries,” Orthmann said through an interpreter.
Not only does Orthmann work every day, but he also still drives a car, cares for his ill wife (who is 31 years his junior) and even exercises for an hour each morning. He rises early to stretch, meditate and breathe in preparation for another day of work.
These days, Orthmann works as a sales manager: taking orders from old clients, helping colleagues in sales and overseeing sales in all departments. Until 2016, he was still traveling across Brazil to meet with accounts.
“Informally, he’s a lifestyle guru,” said Roberto Sander, a co-worker. “Lots of people seek his advice on how to lead a long and productive life. His philosophy? ‘ Just avoid sugar, junk food and soda. Find a job you like and never retire!’ ”
Actually, Orthmann has technically retired. He was forced to take mandatory retirement by the company in 1978, but he was rehired the next day because he was so good at his job.
“The CEO of the company at the time invited me to rejoin and keep selling,” he recalled. “Today, I receive a pension and a salary.”
Born in 1922, Orthmann has seen a lot of history during his years. In 1936, he witnessed the Hindenburg airship, the world’s largest dirigible, as it passed over Brusque, which is about 700 miles south of Rio de Janeiro.
“It was huge and majestic,” he remembered. “Not much went on in those days, so that was a great event that left me — and everyone else — very excited. Six months later, the Hindenburg was destroyed in Lakehurst, N. J. I was shocked when I learned the news.”
During World War II, Orthmann was drafted into the Brazilian army, which sent an infantry division to Italy to fight with the U.S. Fifth Army. He did not have to ship overseas.
“Five of my fellow soldiers were sent,” he said. “Luckily, they never saw much action and survived.”
The war years also meant other changes for Orthmann. He grew up in a German enclave in Brusque and spoke only German, which was outlawed when Brazil declared war on Germany in 1942.
“I was kind of forced to learn Portuguese as quickly as possible,” he recalled.
For Orthmann, working has been the key to survival — and longevity. He was elated when he got his job with the fabric producer because that meant he didn’t have to work on a farm. There weren’t too many career opportunities in Brazil in 1938, he said.
“There were two big weaving mills in the city, and if you were not hired by one of them, the alternative was to work the land,” he stated.
As Orthmann grew with the company, he took on more responsibilities, eventually moving into a sales position. During his first week in that capacity, he sold enough orders to keep the plant busy for three months. Orthmann realized this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“It gives me a routine and a reason to get up in the morning,” he said. “Work prevents you from getting sick and lazy, which is the beginning of the dying process. Most of my friends who retired are gone already. When you don’t occupy yourself with something, you’re are actually just waiting to die.”
Orthmann keeps himself sharp — physically, mentally and emotionally. He tries to stay on top of technological advancements, even though he might be distrustful of some of them at first. A case in point is the modern calculator.
“I was in charge of the department that dealt with daily billing, and I made all calculations in my mind,” he said. “When the calculator arrived, I doubted it could be as precise as I was, so I kept doing it my way and checking the calculator’s result for one week until I was sure it worked. Still today, I can calculate fast in my mind, and find it horrible when I go to a store and see people puzzled over how much change they have to give. I have already worked it out before I hand them the bill!”
Of course, his life has not been without challenges. Orthmann’s first wife died in 1978. When he was 75, he had a kidney removed because he wasn’t drinking enough water. (He now consumes two quarts every day.) Last year, a son from his second marriage, Marcello, died of covid. He was only 27.
“Walter was quite sad at the time,” Sander said.
Despite the setbacks, Orthmann remains upbeat. He arrives early at work in the mornings and drives home at lunch each day to help his wife, who has Parkinson’s disease. Then he returns to the office for a full afternoon of work.
“Having a routine is what makes me feel like getting up every day,” he said. “Now I’m looking forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of the company in three years’ time.”
So what’s the secret to a long and happy life? Orthmann tells everyone who will listen:
“Working makes you happy and healthy. Be honest and humble. Accept the teaching of your boss and fellow workers. Try to do your best at every opportunity; it will be noticed.”
And perhaps most important: “Choose a job that you like.”