Richard Overton, a Texas original and the nation’s oldest surviving veteran of World War II, passed away recently at his home in Austin. In his later years, he was seen on local TV stations often, having grown up in a time before even radio or movies. He was an ordinary man in many ways, but his life and his outlook were anything but ordinary.
Richard Arvin Overton was born in May 1906 in rural Bastrop County, just east of Austin. He was one of ten children born to Gentry and Lizzie Overton. They were a farming family, living modestly and moving from farm to farm in Bastrop and Travis counties. His great-great-grandfather was John Overton, a Tennessee judge, slave trade, founder of Memphis, and advisor to President Andrew Jackson.
His father died in the 1920s. Now married, Overton stayed on the family farm in rural Travis County with his wife to help his mother and help care for his youngest brother and sister. The two divorced in the 1930s, and he moved into Austin to pick up work at a local furniture store.
In 1940, with war looming, the 34-year-old Overton enlisted in the army. He was a skilled soldier, earning an expert marksmanship badge and a combat infantry badge. His unit was commended for its service in combat. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Overton’s unit was one of the first to arrive to provide relief and bolster defenses in Hawaii. He would later serve in campaigns across the South Pacific, including Guam and Iwo Jima. He was one of 16 million Americans to serve in uniform during those years. He rose to the rank of Technician Fifth Grade before his honorable discharge in October 1945.
Overton returned home to a nation where millions of veterans shared his experience. Proud of his service, and proud that tyranny had been defeated, he settled into a quiet life. Like many other veterans, he was content to have done his duty and to fade into the background.
In 1946, he built a modest wooden home on Hamilton Avenue in East Austin that he would live in for the rest of his life. He married a second time, which also ended in divorce. He never had children and outlived all of his siblings. He eventually went to work for the Texas Department of the Treasury.
As the years went on, and fewer World War II veterans were left, the generation that had grown up knowing only freedom recognized the importance of what Overton and others had done in the war. As his years advanced, he became a local celebrity in Austin. Austin Community College gave him an honorary degree to show its appreciation for Overton’s service. His story spread across the nation.
On Veterans Day 2013, at age 107, Overton met President Barack Obama at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. He stood with the president, honoring his fallen comrades at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. It was a remarkable moment for the grandson of a slave who had grown up in a time when African-Americans could not even vote or get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter to meet the first African-American president.
In 2016, at the age of 109, Overton became the oldest living veteran in the United States after Frank Levingston of Louisiana, a fellow army and World War II veteran, died at age 110.
Overton retained his razor-sharp wit and a remarkable vitality at a greatly advanced age. He was often asked the secret to his long life. He credited smoking cigars and drinking whiskey every day. He drove himself up to the age of 110, often driving his elderly neighbors to church, and awoke each day before dawn to see the sunrise. A spiritual man, he also credited God with the gift of a long life. “I am here because the man upstairs wants me to be here… He put me here, and he decides when it’s my time to go.”
On his 111th birthday, local reporters, knowing his fondness for whiskey and cigars, gave him a bottle of whiskey to celebrate and asked how many cigars he had smoked that morning. He laughed and said, “Three or four. Y’all been holding me back, I guess!”
His birthday became a community event with the City of Austin giving his beloved Hamilton Avenue the honorary name “Richard Overton Street,” with the neighborhood throwing a block party for him. The mayor proclaimed his birthday “Richard Overton Day.”
Eventually, the years started to catch up. Noticing his increasing health problems, surviving family, neighbors, and local businesses raised nearly $200,000 to help him continue to live on his own with renovations to his house and funds to help Overton with his daily needs. He cared for others and inspired that in others. He was hospitalized briefly in August 2018, two months after he turned 112. He recovered and returned home. In December, he was briefly hospitalized with pneumonia. And once again, his strength returned, and he was released from the hospital.
Shortly after Christmas, he passed away. The news quickly became an international story, with media outlets around the world reporting on his remarkable life. He was part of a remarkable generation of Americans who won a desperate war to keep the nation free and independent. Moreover, for 112 years, he awoke each day and savored life, recognizing what a beautiful gift each new day was.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.