One of the more academically gifted members of our 1964 class, James L. Breunig lived an almost shockingly unconventional life. He took his Carleton physics degree to the University of Illinois, and later obtained a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. After deciding against a career in academia, Jim took a research position with IBM, helping the company develop its plasma display business.
IBM abandoned and sold the subsidiary a year later, and Jim’s contract was not renewed. He found himself in Savannah, Ga., installing burglar alarms. Later, overcoming some of his natural shyness, he began dealing on a daily basis with virtually every element of society while driving a taxicab. In our bio book for our 50th reunion, Jim wrote briefly but vividly about his experiences driving a taxi up to 60 hours a week for 22 years — the constant threat of armed robberies, the disparate cross-section of humanity that he interacted with, a driver/friend’s experience in killing two people in self-defense. It was not an ordinary Carleton life story.
Jim also describes his personal journey from intellectual to non-intellectual, his adjustment to lower-status employment, and his return to the cerebral life through reading and contemplation during his free time. In 1998, Jim’s mother died, leaving Jim a stock portfolio and a modern house in a lakeside community just west of Austin. Jim retired and moved to Lago Vista, TX, busying himself in an exercise regimen and volunteering at a local animal shelter.
In 2000, during a routine physical examination, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After reading about it, and with no apparent symptoms or physical weakness, Jim declined treatment. All went well until July 2013, when, at age 70, metastasis set in with a vengeance, by then too late to be permanently treated. By early 2014, when I talked with him about his bio book contribution, Jim’s condition was deteriorating significantly; he was facing imminent death and making his peace with his situation.
Jim struggled on through 2014. But early in the following year, relatives helped him move to a hospice care facility in rural Nebraska, where he died in November 2015.