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Richard Overton visits the National World War II memorial in Washington during a trip provided by Texas Honor Flights. Pushing his wheelchair is Ron Bell, minister for the Church of Christ in Hyde Park, who baptized Overton.
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Video still from "Mr. Overton" documentary, Rocky Conly LLC & Cooper Films

America’s oldest World War II vet remembered as ‘a Texas legend’

Some say he loved cigars and whiskey, but the Church of Christ that baptized 'brother Overton' at 107 knew him as a humble man of faith.

AUSTIN, Texas — Richard Overton was buried in a field of honor at Texas State Cemetery — a Tampa Sweet cigar in his jacket pocket and a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey at his side.

But that isn’t who he was, said members of the congregation where he was baptized at age 107, less than five years before his Dec. 27 death at age 112.

Richard Overton

Richard Overton

The nation’s oldest World War II veteran — and likely the oldest man in America — was a humble believer who dressed up for Sunday worship and never smelled of whiskey, said members of the Church of Christ in Hyde Park.

“He was not a drunkard. He was not a wild guy,” said Martha Trybyszewski, who worships with the church in Austin’s historic district, just north of the University of Texas.

Instead of the cigars and whiskey in his casket, “they should’ve put a Bible in there,” said Martha Eberhard, another Hyde Park member who encouraged Overton to get baptized.

Even at age 112, “he was a true child of God.”

‘WHY ME? WHY AM I STILL HERE?’

Born in Bastrop County, Texas, on May 11, 1906, Overton volunteered for the Army in 1942 and served with the 188th Aviation Engineer Battalion. The all-black unit constructed runways — sometimes behind enemy lines — to give ground troops air support as they fought on the islands of the Pacific. The unit fought in the Battle of Angaur and served in Guam and Okinawa.

Even at age 112, “he was a true child of God.”

Overton was driving an officer the first time he was shot at, he told Tackett. He pulled his jeep to one side of a dirt road and he and the officer leaped into the brush on the other side.

The officer handed him his gun.

“Here, Richard. You might need this,” the officer said.

Overton soon gained a reputation as a skilled rifleman. Seventy years later, he still remembered the sound of Japanese sniper fire — how you could hear the bullet ripping through the jungle foliage before you heard the gunshot.

He later visited Arlington National Cemetery. His relative, Volma Overton Jr., recalled to those at the funeral how Richard, seeing the countless rows of white headstones, asked, “Why me? Why am I still here?”

American flags and flowers adorn the Austin home of Richard Overton. In May 2017, the city renamed the street he lived on for seven decades in his honor.

American flags and flowers adorn the Austin home of Richard Overton. In May 2017, the city renamed the street he lived on for seven decades in his honor.

After the war he returned to Austin where he worked for a furniture company, built a house and some of the furnishings that went in the house. He was a courier in the Texas State Capitol for four governors.

He and his wife, Wilma, never had children. Wilma Overton died in 1988.

As he neared 100, family members — and a few doctors — asked Overton to consider assisted living. He refused.

In 2013, Overton was honored at Arlington cemetery, during a Veterans Day observance.

President Barack Obama praised him for his service and marveled at his longevity.

“Today Richard still lives in the house that he built all those years ago,” Obama said. “(He) rakes his own lawn, and every Sunday he hops in his 1971 Ford truck and drives one of the nice ladies in his neighborhood to church.”

That nice lady played a vital role in his baptism.

BORN AGAIN AT 107

Earlene Love rarely missed Sunday worship with the Church of Christ at Hyde Park. Her husband, Isaac, had served as the church’s custodian. The Loves were among the congregation’s only black members.

Earlene Love gets a ride to church from her friend Richard Overton in his 1971 Ford F100 pickup truck.

Earlene Love gets a ride to church from her friend Richard Overton in his 1971 Ford F100 pickup truck.

When Isaac Love died in the early 1970s, Earlene stayed with the church. She said, “These are my brothers and sisters,” church members recalled.

Earlene, a former nurse, lived just a few blocks away from Overton. She cooked and cleaned for him on occasion. Then, as she neared her 90s, Overton, a man 17 years her senior, began driving her to church.

When Overton and Love came to worship, “he always carried her purse,” said Hyde Park member Bobbie Neely. “Men used to do that. They don’t do it anymore.”

When church members asked if Overton was her boyfriend, Love replied, “What, that old man?” The relationship never was romantic, Tackett said.

His wit matched his chivalry, said Martha Trybyszewski, who once told Overton, “I like your purse.”

His reply: “You should see my high heels.”

His smile was infectious, said church member Cile Hare.

Church "keeps me going," Richard Overton said in the 2015 documentary "Mr. Overton." "You learn how to live better, how to treat people. Church is just for everybody. (It's) good to have a spiritual life, but you got to live it."

Church “keeps me going,” Richard Overton said in the 2015 documentary “Mr. Overton.” “You learn how to live better, how to treat people. Church is just for everybody. (It’s) good to have a spiritual life, but you got to live it.”

“When you asked him how he was, he’d say, ‘I am 6 feet above ground and I’m doing great,’” Hare said. “I never saw him down.”

Martha Eberhard started attending Hyde Park about seven years ago. The 74-year-old widow routinely conducts Bible studies with people she meets across Austin.

Eberhard became fast friends with Love, who told her, “I want you to help me get Richard baptized.” From then on, “when I would greet him. I told him, ‘I want you to be baptized so I can call you brother Overton,’” Eberhard said.

On a summer Sunday in 2014, after worship, Overton approached minister Ron Bell and said he was ready. About 20-30 church members, lingering in the fellowship hall, came back to the auditorium and watched as the 107-year-old man was born again.

“He said it was about time,” Bell recalled, “and that he knew he wasn’t going to get much older.”

He outlived Earlene Love. She died in 2017 at age 93. He kept coming to worship. He enjoyed the a cappella singing and the potlucks, said church member Jan Moore.

Richard Overton takes Earlene Love's purse as they leave an appointment. At age 109, he drove his 91-year-old friend, whom he called "Love," to H-E-B Grocery, on shopping trips and to church. Love died Feb. 26, 2017, at age 93.

Richard Overton takes Earlene Love’s purse as they leave an appointment. At age 109, he drove his 91-year-old friend, whom he called “Love,” to H-E-B Grocery, on shopping trips and to church. Love died Feb. 26, 2017, at age 93.

‘A TEXAS LEGEND’

The 70-member Church of Christ didn’t have a speaker at Overton’s funeral, held on the north campus of Austin’s large Shoreline Church to accommodate more than 1,000 mourners. Two of Shoreline’s pastors bookended the service, which included speeches by Austin’s mayor, a U.S. Army general and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott, who is paralyzed below the waist, recalled how Overton once challenged him to a wheelchair race.

Volma Overton Jr. accepts a flag that flew over the state Capitol in honor of his cousin from Gov. Greg Abbott.

Volma Overton Jr. accepts a flag that flew over the state Capitol in honor of his cousin from Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Richard Overton is a Texas legend,” Abbott said amid thunderous applause. “He is an American icon. He loved this nation, and he put his faith in God Almighty above all else.”

Scattered among the audience, away from rows of seats reserved for Shoreline staff and Austin’s City Council, members of Overton’s home congregation watched. A couple of them had appeared on TV the night before at the wake — though you could only see the backs of their heads, said James Tackett, a deacon and song leader for the Church of Christ.

“Even though we didn’t participate (in the memorial), we weren’t there for us; we were there for him,” Tackett said of his supercentenarian friend — a term for someone who reaches 110.

The service included snippets from a documentary filmed two years after Overton’s baptism. Although the film includes footage of Overton at church, talking about his faith, the clips shown at the funeral focused on his love of cigars and butter pecan ice cream.

“I drink about four cups of coffee in the morning,” Overton said in the film. “This morning I drank about that much whiskey.” The crowd erupted in laughter.

That’s an exaggeration — and an example of Overton’s signature humor, Tackett said.

“His father told him that whiskey keeps your muscles tender,” Tackett said, so Overton put a dab in his coffee.

“It doesn’t matter who gets the credit, so long as God gets the glory.”

Overton lived a quiet, unassuming life, Tackett added, and few people seemed to pay him much attention until he passed the century mark.

He never quite knew what to make of the fame his long life brought him.

“When people told him, ‘You’re a hero,’ he’d say, ‘Oh no. I saw men who were heroes. I was doing my duty,’” Tackett said.

GOD COMES BEFORE CIGARS

At the Texas State Cemetery, National Guard helicopters flew in missing man formation over the crowd, hundreds strong, gathered at the state cemetery where Overton was laid to rest — near the graves of “The Father of Texas” Stephen F. Austin, former governors and military heroes like “American Sniper” Chris Kyle.

Motorcycle-riding veterans held American flags as some of the attendees lit cigars in Overton’s honor. Others crowded around his grave to get a photo with their hands on his casket.

Tech Sgt. Richard Overton's unit was nicknamed "The Bucking Bulldozers."

Tech Sgt. Richard Overton’s unit was nicknamed “The Bucking Bulldozers.”

Relatives wore T-shirts that read “112 forever.” On the backs they identified their relationship to Overton — “2nd Cousin,” “3rd Cousin,” “4th Cousin.”

Two of them, Jana Dixon and Geila Phillips, talked about “Uncle Duel,” as they called him. (Neither was sure how that name came about.) They remembered stories about their grandfather and Overton, who were brothers, breaking horses and moving the family from Bastrop to Dallas during a terrible drought.

At the funeral, “they emphasized the cigars and the whiskey,” Phillips said, “but his faith was No. 1 to him.”

Dixon added, “He always talked about God first — then cigars, then the whiskey.”

DISAPPOINTMENT AND GLORY

The day after the funeral, the Hyde Park church gathered for its regular Sunday worship.

Tackett led the hymns “Just over in the Glory Land” and “Mansion Over the Hilltop” and church members reminisced about “brother Overton.”

Stan Reid

Stan Reid

Stan Reid, president of Austin Graduate School of Theology, was the guest speaker. He preached on Luke 1 and the importance of “passing the baton” of faith to the next generation of Christians.

“I know there’s some disappointment,” he said of the church’s exclusion from the memorial.

“You did the work, you embraced Richard, you welcomed him here. That’s recorded in the register in heaven.

“It doesn’t matter who gets the credit, so long as God gets the glory.”

From her church pew, Cile Hare nodded in agreement with the statement — a statement that described the life of her friend Richard Overton.

“He always gave glory to God,” she said. “That was Richard.”

Filed under: baptized at 107 National News oldest man Richard Overton Top Stories WWII veteran

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