When Richard Overton was released from the hospital after a bout of pneumonia in August, the Austin community rallied around him. Cards and gifts poured in, and it seemed the entire city was monitoring his progress and celebrating his return home.
After all, Overton is 111 years old, and it's not every day that the oldest living veteran in the country seems to beat everything that's thrown his way.
Overton was born in 1906 to James and Elizabeth Overton, in the town of St. Mary's Colony, a black farming community east of Austin. Founded shortly after emancipation by freed slaves, the town's population dwindled from a high of 300. Lack of irrigation made farming the dry land there a hard life.
He joined the U.S. Army on Sept. 3, 1940 at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and served during World War II in the Pacific Theater with the 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion, arriving by ship to Pearl Harbor just after it was bombed. Smoke still filled the sky as his segregated black battalion entered the war. His unit also arrived in Iwo Jima days after the main battle there.
Overton's service also included time in Guam, Hawaii, and Palau. He retired from the Army in October 1945 as a corporal technician fifth grade, having been awarded numerous distinctions, including the Expert Rifle Marksmanship Badge, Meritorious Unit Commendation, and the American Campaign Medal.
"War's nothing to be into," Overton said in a 2013 interview. "You don't want to go into the war if you don't have to. But I had to go. I had to do things I didn't want to do."
After the war, Overton returned to Austin and built the house that he still lives in today. He worked at furniture stores for a while before taking a position with the Texas Department of the Treasury under then-Gov. Ann Richards.
But these days, Overton can usually be found in his favorite place: the front porch of his Austin home, watching over the neighborhood while he listens to music and smokes his beloved cigars. He calls his porch "a happy place to be," and it almost feels as if he's holding court at times, as various neighbors, caregivers, and visitors stop by to check on him.
Just a few months ago, on May 11, Austin celebrated Overton's 111th birthday with a luncheon at the University of Texas Club, presided over by Mayor Steve Adler. "Celebrating Richard Overton's 111th birthday is a chance to celebrate what is best about our country and our community," Adler said.
Adler then declared May 11 as Richard Overton Day, and unveiled the biggest surprise: The East Austin street on which Overton has lived for the past 45 years, Hamilton Avenue, was being renamed. From that day forward, it would be known as "Richard Overton Avenue."
The veteran was indeed honored — but also humbled, saying it made him proud to receive such recognition. A big party was held at his house later that day, with more than 200 people in attendance, all lining up to take a picture with him like he was Santa Claus.
With more than a decade as a centenarian under his belt, Overton is often asked for the secrets to his long life — and he always has the same answer: cigars and whiskey.
"I always drink a little bit, it's kept me alive, I've been living so long," he says, though the indulgence these days is more of a tablespoon stirred into his coffee. And he still smokes at least five or six cigars every day.
Overton has enjoyed many fine moments, including a visit to Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight, an Austin nonprofit organization that takes Texas veterans to the capital to visit the memorials. But the highlight of Overton's trip to Washington was not the WWII memorial — it was the one dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., where he wept.
Overton has also been invited to the White House — twice — meeting President Barack Obama. The president singled him out by name at a Veterans Day ceremony in 2013 at Arlington National Cemetery.
"When the war ended, Richard headed home to Texas to a nation bitterly divided by race," Obama said. "And his service on the battlefield was not always matched by the respect that he deserved at home. But this veteran held his head high. He carried on and lived his life with honor and dignity."
Before his recent bout with pneumonia, there was another potential crisis last December when the high cost of the in-home caregiving he needed threatened to force him out of his home and into an assisted living facility. Department of Veterans Affairs benefits cover only three hours of home care per day.
His family turned to the community, setting up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the needed care. The original goal of the campaign was $50,000; to date, the fund has raised more than $200,000, proof of how esteemed Overton is in his hometown. Many people also volunteered nursing services, home maintenance help, and more.
Today, Overton is back at home recuperating from his recent illness, and getting stronger every day.
"He continues to hang in there with his wonderful wit and love for all," says his cousin, Volma Overton, Jr. "His front porch continues to be his very special place to be. We are so thankful that all is well and he is back on his throne once again watching the world go around."