Meet Sydney “Cy” Breen. Cy turned 100 years old on Feb. 8, 2012. He is one of the most interesting people I have ever met, with a life story that is truly amazing. Some of it I will share with you here. I worked for Cy for two and a half years starting in 1992 operating one of his business ventures, a photolab and portrait studio. This was my first venture running a business, and Cy believed in me more than I did myself. I took the lab from start up to a successful business, but this was also at the time right as my addiction began to manifest itself in a series of “misadventures” that eventaully lead to me walking away from Cy, the business, everything I had dreamed of and built, hitting bottom and returning to Minnesota to seek rehab. When Cy turned 90, he started a fund-raising event for cancer research in which he played one hole of golf for every year he was alive. That event has raised over $1o0,000 for cancer research in the last ten years.
When Cy was 94, his step daughter, Jody Klein died of breast cancer , so he created the “The Jody Klein Breast Cancer Research Fund” at The City of Hope Cancer Center as the recipient. This year, in honor of his 100th Birthday, Cy will be playing 100 Holes of golf on March 18, 2012, in the hope of raising $50,000 for cancer research I went to visit Cy while in Palm Springs to wish him a “Happy Birthday” and give him a check towards his goal. Although he is 20 years older than when I first met him, he is still the same: his mind is sharp, he has joyful disposition, a devilish twinkle in his eye and a smile of his face. When I arrived at his house,we gave each other a big hug, then he took me by the arm and gently pulled me into the kitchen where he introduced me to his wife of 15 years, Clarissa, who poured me a cup of coffee. Cy then lead me to the couch, were we settled in and began to chat about his turning 100. I again, wished him a Happy Birthday and he quipped ” Thanks, that’s past, I’m working on 101 now” I wanted to video this time with him, but was so engulfed by the warmth of the energy in the room, that I felt the camera would cause a distraction.
I asked him what was the greatest thing he had seen in the last 100 years and he immediately said “Digital Photography” and then he went on for awhile about his past photographic endeavors, the labs he had owned in the 40’s, the chemical process, his freelancing with LA papers that are no longer in existence, his bidding on contracts to supply the Navy and Army with cameras, equipment, flash bulb and projectors.
He shared with me on one occasion in the early 40’s, he boarded a ship for a meeting/delivery and the ship set sail out of LA area: “I thought I was drafted” he smiled “then they docked in San Diego and flew me back up to LA to get to my car.”
He talked about how he got the “California Bug” when running used cars into LA from Arkansas and Louisiana after the Dust Bowl, and “the smell of the orange blossoms and the orange groves coming into Los Angeles and man, I was hooked” He moved his new wife and son to LA in 1934. I asked him what was the most significant event he had seen and he said: “Well, in 1937, I was on business in New Jersey, and I read in the paper about this event that was happening that night, so my wife and I went over to Lakehurst to watch the Hindenberg land. Boy, was that something to see” I was dumbfounded. I had heard alot of Cy’s stories when he would come into the lab back in 90’s, but some of what he was telling me today was new to me, and I just loved listening to him talk, and the gleam that was in his eye.
He continued to share, telling me of his friendship with Roy Rodgers and how they raced boats in the late 40’s and 50’s and were winning alot of races. In a corner of the foyer are photographs of Roy, Roy and Dale all signed and captioned “Cy…. Love Roy” or “Love Roy and Dale” Across from the photographs of Roy, are two 11×14 frames, containing the faceplates of trophies, stating things like: “San Diego- La Jolla, 200 Miles, 1st Place, Roy Rodgers-Pilot, Cy Breen Co-Pilot” There are 12 plates in the two frames and two large trophies on the floor.
Cy then talked about his affiliation with Rotary International and how he began his involved with that organiztion and the motto “of service above self.” We went into his office and the walls are just lined with letters of commendation, awards for outstanding serivce, letters from and pictures of past Presidents of the Untied States. I marveled at the contents of the room and he just shrugged it off and said: “When you live this long you collect these things”
We then went back out into the living room and he showed me his exercise to help his golfing. When he granted his permission, I walked around the house and took photographs of the images I used for this story. We sat back down on the couch and I asked him about his health and his diet and he said: ” Of course I watch what I eat, I have to look at the food to get it in my mouth!” and he let out a chuckle, with that twinkle in his eye. He shared he was at a Rotary luncheon last month, sitting next to a Doctor and as he began to sprinkle salt on his salad the Doctor leaned over to him and said: “You know sodium is can be bad for you” and Cy told him, “you should have told me 98 years ago” and that twinkle returned to his eye. And I realized, that twenty years later, I am still drawn in by and feel such joy from that twinkle. He then began to share about how to him, life as a whole, feels like many life times. And he gave examples of how the various times of his life, the car running of the 30’s, the photo 40’s, the boat racing of the 50’s ( I realize now, we didnt talk much about the 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s.) and the time I was affiliated with him in the 1990’s all as lifetimes, and how life changes into different lifetimes. And this changing of lifetimes is good. He said for him, “the most important thing is to smile, because it makes you feel good.. so always smile.”
I asked “Cy, How long have you been a AAA member?” “Well, I was with a company like them for 16 years before they were bought out by AAA.” He then opened up his wallet and showed me his AAA card. He started driving when he was 14.
As he put the AAA card back into his wallet he said his only concern now is to outlive the expiration date on his credit cards. He stated that he doesn’t get a senior citizen discount anymore, now he gets the meals free. I didn’t fully appreciate it when I worked for him those short two and a half years, but this man was more of a father to me than my own father ever was. Cy’s energy is just phenomenal; it is never dark, always uplifting and contagious. I know that there has been some personal tragedy and heartache in his life, but I have never seen it affect him in a negative way. It was good to spend some time with him.