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Service, humor, cigars: Hundreds gather to remember nation's oldest WWII veteran

Photographs and other mementos belonging to Richard Overton were displayed in his home on Thursday, May 25, 2017 in Austin, Texas.

ASHLEY LANDIS/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS

By LAUREN MCGAUGHY | The Dallas Morning News | Published: January 14, 2019

AUSTIN (Tribune News Service)— A legend has been laid to rest.

Richard A. Overton, proud American and venerated soldier, was buried at the Texas State Cemetery on Saturday with full military honors.

At 112, Overton was the nation’s oldest man and most senior veteran when he died Dec. 27. His age lent him celebrity, but it was Overton’s humor, faith and profound kindness that made him extraordinary.

Hundreds turned out to honor the man, famous for his love of whiskey and cigars, before he was interred in the family plot. Some placed roses on his casket, a shiny number with bald eagles embedded in its corners, or swapped tales about how he taught them to play checkers.

Others lit up a few Tampa Sweet Perfectos, imbuing the cool afternoon air with the sweet smell of Overton’s favorite brand. Apache helicopters buzzed overhead. Generations of military men stood at attention. Local children played among the headstones.

For most of his life, Overton lived about a half-mile from here. Now, for the first time in 70 years, his chair on the porch sits vacant. But his family says he’ll never really, truly be gone.

“His final resting place is right here, right where he wanted to be,” cousin Volma Overton Jr. said after the funeral. “He’s still home.”

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'A remarkable American'

A few years ago, Richard Overton was invited to spend his 109th birthday at the Governor’s Mansion.

He showed up in a wheelchair, Gov. Greg Abbott remembered, and promptly challenged him to a race. Abbott, who has used a wheelchair since suffering an accident in 1984, quickly declined. How would it look if he lost to a man nearly twice his age?

“What is your secret to living so long?” Abbott asked Overton that day. “His answer was immediate and unequivocal: cigars and whiskey.”

It was this “quick wit” and “joyous spirit” that endeared Overton to millions, Abbott told those who came to a service honoring the supercentenarian at Shoreline Church on Saturday morning.

“We celebrate Richard Overton not because of how long he lived. Instead we celebrate him because of how he lived his life,” Abbott told the congregation, which numbered in the hundreds. “Today, we salute a remarkable American. A soldier. A survivor. A jokester. A joy.

“A man from Texas. A man of God.”

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Witness to history

Despite having no children of his own, Overton was remembered as the capital city’s great-great-great-grandfather. He was born in 1906, when there were just 45 stars on the U.S. flag. The grandson of slaves, Overton grew up picking cotton in Bastrop County and served in a segregated unit during World War II.

General John M. Murray, commander of the Austin-based U.S. Army Futures Command, said Overton’s 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion faced “searing” combat in the Pacific theater. But Overton also had to stare down “the toxic mix of racial discrimination and low expectations from the units they were a part of," added Murray.

“And although those units across the United States Army, and really across all the services, were set up to fail, Richard and his comrades overcame those challenges with valor, with expertise and with professionalism and with dedication.”

When Overton returned to Texas, he built a house on Austin’s east side that would be his home for the next 70 years. It was here, on that porch on Hamilton Avenue, that people from across the country and around the world could find Overton on a sunny day. They’d ask him for advice, sip some Maker's Mark, and, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said, try to soak up some of his infectious positivity.

“It was impossible to be around that man, who was gentle and respectful and kind, and not be gentle and respectful and kind in return,” Adler said. “It impossible to be around Mr. Overton and not be the best that each of us can be.”

Eight days before his 110th birthday, Overton became the nation’s oldest veteran. The next year, Hamilton Avenue was renamed Richard Overton Avenue.

“And this lifelong Texan,” Adler said, “will be buried today in the same cemetery as many of our state’s most famous politicians, veterans and founding fathers.”

Overton's family hopes to turn his home into a museum one day and asks everyone to continue to keep him in their thoughts.

"Let's keep Richard in our prayers," Volma Overton Jr. said. "God bless you, Richard. We love you."

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U.S. Army veteran Richard Overton sits in his chair smoking a cigar at 4:54 a.m. on Saturday, May 5, 2018 at his home in Austin, Texas.
ASHLEY LANDIS/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS

In this 2017 photo, Richard Overton smokes a cigar on his front porch among signs that were displayed to celebrate his 111th birthday, on Hamilton Avenue in Austin, Texas.
ASHLEY LANDIS/DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS

Richard Overton, pictured here at 111, was known for smoking cigars and drinking whiskey on his front porch.
ASHLEY LANDIS/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS

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