Life Lessons from Peconic Landing: Dr. Walton Shreeve

At 102 years old, Dr. Walton Shreeve, whose research into nuclear medicine took him to Brookhaven National Laboratory as well as the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, continues to learn and share his knowledge. 

Last week, he was among the 13 centenarians residing at Peconic Landing who received proclamations from New York Sen. Anthony Palumbo at a birthday celebration.

Dr. Shreeve sat down with a reporter from The Suffolk Times last Wednesday to impart wisdom well-earned through his 102 years. Here are five of the life lessons he shared during this conversation. 

Don’t follow the money.

In pursuing his education and choosing a career path, it was not money that drove Dr. Shreeve, but purpose. His accomplishments include being named chief of medicine at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“If I wanted to make a lot of money as a doctor, I would have gone into general practice or some lucrative specialty,” he said. “I went another direction, into research, and in research positions, you don’t get very highly paid.”

 “One of the most satisfying days” of his career, he said, came over 20 years ago, when he and his peers celebrated the publication of a nuclear medicine textbook for which he was both an editor and an author of five chapters. 

“What was important was to achieve something that would be of lasting value and special value beyond my own world,” Dr. Shreeve said, “to be able to discover something that was significant beyond my small, personal life.

Pursue love.

When asked about the most important day of his life, Dr. Shreeve cited the day he married Phyllis Heidenreich in December 1945. She died in 2000.

“You don’t have to be a drudge at work or a book-hound all the time,” he said. “You have to get some joy out of life, too. And it’s important to find a good mate and stick with her or him.

“I got married and had children in my mid-20s up to 30, yet I wasn’t well established in any remunerative position,” he added. “In other words, we were living like churchmice sometimes.”

Be persistent.

When asked about the greatest advice he ever received, Dr. Shreeve said it was learning persistence.

“You have to always have some kind of project going and [be] anticipating some outcome that requires putting your shoulder to the wheel,” he said. “That keeps people from stagnating, so to speak … and that applies to different stages of life.”

Never stop learning.

Since arriving at Peconic Landing over a decade ago, Dr. Shreeve has taken to learning the ukulele, his first instrument, and has been involved in the community’s lifelong learning lecture series. Once a professor at Stony Brook University, he is currently preparing a course to teach his fellow residents. His working title for the lecture series is “Nuclear Medicine: Search and Rescue with Radio Isotopes.”

“You could substitute the words ‘diagnosis’ and ‘therapy,’ ” he said. “But ‘search and rescue’ is a little more glib, a little more fancy title.”

Legacy matters.

Much of Dr. Shreeve’s scientific legacy can be found in print, including “Physiological Chemistry of Carbohydrates in Mammals,” which his fellow residents can find in Peconic Landing’s library. But in recent years, he has also given thought to his own legacy for his family, which includes four children, seven living grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. 

“I wrote 12 chapters of my memoirs,” he said. “Never got it published in print. I put it onto memory sticks so my children and grandchildren have a memory stick.”