Richard Overton, at the age of 107, sits comfortably in his recliner at home in Austin, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt on this cold December day, his World War II veteran’s cap placed snugly on his head and an unlit cigar held between his fingers.
Behind his quiet and dignified demeanor is a remarkable story that Overton is too humble to voluntarily talk about. You have to ask. On Veterans Day 2013, Overton was ubiquitous in the media, heralded as the oldest known World War II veteran in the U.S. Born May 11, 1906, in Bastrop County, Overton was honored during a Veterans Day breakfast at the White House attended by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Later he was able to speak with the president.
Overton will tell you how much he admires Obama and how he prays for him. But he’ll demur if asked what he and the president talked about during their brief conversation. Whether out of respect for the president’s privacy or his sense of the ineffable nature of the occasion, Overton, in response to a question about their interaction, simply smiles and says, “I can’t tell you.” But he will reveal that Obama told him to “keep the Word.”
During a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery, Obama twice called on Overton to stand and be recognized. Both times the crowd of thousands erupted in wild applause. Earlier that day, as word of Overton’s impending arrival at Reagan National Airport spread, an honor guard of civilians and soldiers formed to greet him. Such is the admiration he inspired everywhere he appeared in the nation’s capital.
It was Overton’s second trip to D.C. in 2013. On May 17, along with 35 other Central Texas World War II veterans, he flew to Washington as part of the Honor Flight program. The nationwide Honor Flight project’s goal is to escort as many veterans as possible to the World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and other national monuments.
Overton was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 when he was living and farming in Creedmoor with his wife, who is now deceased. I asked Overton how he, as an African-American, felt about being conscripted to defend a country that was mostly racially segregated, especially in the South where segregation was law and blacks did not enjoy many of the freedoms for which America was fighting.
“You do what you have to do for the good of everyone.”
Overton was assigned to the South Pacific with the all-black 188th Aviation Engineer Battalion. His unit had a white commander, as did the rest of the black units. He says the soldiers were never told where they were going or where they had been. But a little detective work and keen observation by Overton and his fellow soldiers showed they had served in Hawaii, Guam, Palau and Iwo Jima.
Life in the Limelight
A seemingly nonstop stream of cards and letters, certificates of honor and printed emails—many of them sent through Austin veterans’ service representative Allen Bergeron—are stacked on Overton’s dining room table in the house he built himself in 1945. Photos of Obama hang on the wall.
Overton’s story drew writers, TV reporters and well-wishers from across the U.S. But closer to home, in the East Texas town of Henderson, staff at Emeritus, an assisted living facility, had a different reason for contacting Overton: His name was Elmer Hill. Hill, a resident there and a retired high school principal, served in the Navy during World War II and was also 107. Only three months younger than Overton, Hill suddenly was sharing the spotlight as news cameras recorded their lunch meeting in Austin in December. Hill and Overton discovered they had more in common than WWII military service.
Both men are African-American, and both attribute their longevity, in part, to positive attitudes. Hill told reporters, “Nothing could be better than meeting someone my own age. There’s so much to tell; I can’t tell it all, but I tried to be a good citizen, whether it was in the Navy or just at home.”
Overton, who has outlived three brothers and six sisters, says he’s lived so long because he has always been a good neighbor and abides by a simple philosophy: “Try to treat everybody right. Try to help people, any kind of way they ask for help.”
He has a few daily rituals that help, too. He takes one baby aspirin, smokes several cigars and has a tablespoon of bourbon with his morning coffee and another with a lemon-lime soda before going to bed.
He watches very little television (local news sometimes). He’s a regular churchgoer, still drives his 1971 Chevrolet Monte Carlo (his 1971 Ford pickup is for sale), mows his own lawn and enjoys many friendships. Overton’s family now includes his companion of many years, Earlene Love, 90. Her daughters and grandchildren call Overton “Papa” and frequently gather at his house, filling the place with animated conversation and laughter.
It’s no wonder that when Overton—who worked at the Capitol under four Texas governors—retired at age 85, he was asked to come back. It seems none of his replacements had the same pride in distributing mail, delivering messages, making airport runs and multiple other supportive tasks. When he again handed in his retirement papers, Overton was 100.
Carol Moczygemba is former editor of Texas Co-op Power.