AUSTIN (KXAN) — For those who never met Richard Overton, they might know him as the east Austin resident who, prior to his death in December 2018, was both the oldest living World War II veteran and the oldest living man in the United States.
Those are all noted aspects of his legacy, said Volma Overton, Jr., Richard’s cousin. But how Richard is known and remembered in Austin is as this: a sharp, quick-witted man who had a love for cigars, whiskey, his sweets and a deep, resounding faith in God.
“I think and hope that if anybody looks at his story and knows anything about him, I think you can see what a humble person he was and hopefully you can see what a caring person he was to all,” Volma said. “He was a unique, caring person. And I think if people can copy how Richard was, that would make this world a better place.”
“The Grandpa of Austin”
In the two and a half years since Richard’s death in December 2018, members of the greater Austin community have looked toward ways to pay homage to his legacy while also ensuring his story is preserved for generations to come.
Gilbert Beall and Donna Brown of Beall Memorial Art are creating a memorial monument for Richard’s gravesite at the Texas State Cemetery. Beall has worked on more than 200 monuments for the Texas State Cemetery alone.
The pandemic delayed work on the monument, and an additional $13,000 in donations is needed to fund the piece, set for completion early this summer, they said. Donations can be made to Beall Memorial Art at 512-380-9889.
Beall met Overton once, a few years prior to his passing. Like many others, Beall said he asked Overton what his secrets were to a long life.
“You know, he told me the same thing he told everybody else, which is basically that he went to church on Sunday, he didn’t inhale his cigars and you had just a little whiskey in your coffee in the morning,” he said, smiling.
In crafting the monument, Brown said she analyzed dozens of photos, video clips and sketches, noting little details and elements of Richard’s personality to encapsulate in the final piece. The monument includes Richard with cigar in hand, twinkling eyes and a wide smile.
The monument is the latest tribute for the man dubbed the “Grandpa of Austin” by family, friends and admirers. In December 2019, Austin City Council designated Richard’s home — a small, cream-colored home off Hamilton Avenue — as a historic landmark.
Volma brought the designation request to Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission in 2019, prepared to make his case on why the city should preserve Richard’s home with this honor. What he wasn’t prepared for, Volma said, was the immediate, unified support coming from city leaders, followed by a unanimous council vote.
“I get tears when I talk about it because it was so nice of them, how they helmed that, and I left there feeling so good,” he said. “And so that was, to me, so special and caring of them.”
The historic designation is a fitting tribute to a man best known for sitting in his favorite chair on his front porch, cigar in hand and accompanied by friends and strangers alike. Many of Richard’s days were spent meeting new and old friends alike on that front porch, Volma said.
A life of service
As Volma helped care for Richard in his later years, those early morning chats doubled as quiet reflections and an opportunity to learn from the life lessons Richard had accumulated during his 112 years on earth.
“I just loved being around him, listening to his stories and him making me laugh and everybody else laugh around him,” he said. “[I learned about] caring for all people — he literally cared for everybody and he would help anyone out.”
Richard would regularly carry about $200 in cash to have on hand in case he came across someone in need. That was the kind of man Richard was, Volma said; he believed in a life of service and paying it forward to those in need.
That benevolent spirit was an extension of his time spent overseas, meeting people of all races, nationalities and creeds, Volma said. Richard had a deep love for the world and welcomed everyone he met with open arms, he added.
It was that love he had for the world that paid back in dividends in his later years. When Richard turned 106, he traveled to Washington, D.C. and found out he was the oldest living U.S. veteran. When he returned home to Austin following that trip, he was greeted by then-Gov. Rick Perry on his front porch.
“It was kind of like he went viral,” he said.
That recognition followed him through the remainder of his life, manifesting in the form of personal trips to the White House, a visit with former President Barack Obama and the designation of May 11 as Richard Overton Day in Austin.
But perhaps the most memorable was his 112th birthday party on May 11, 2018. Hamilton Avenue was blocked off to traffic, and more than 1,000 people visited Richard to share their well wishes, Volma said.
“People lined up to go take pictures with him, and I think there were down to maybe 4-month-old kids to a 94-year-old person that were there,” he said. “Everybody was dancing together and just looking at it, you see all ages, and it was truly an amazing day.”
Memorializing his legacy
Among his many accomplishments and accolades in life, Volma said Richard was most proud of his military service, publicly displayed with his trusted “World War II Veteran” baseball cap. Richard was a talented sharpshooter, Volma said, and he was awarded for his work during his three-year service.
In his will, Richard had made the request for his home to be transformed into a museum. The historic landmark designation was the first step in making his final wish a reality, Volma said.
A consultant is doing inventory on the house to help sort through items to preserve for the future museum. But a key detail Volma said he’d like to preserve remains on the same front porch Richard spent all of those years sitting next to.
Remnants of his last cigar lie in the accompanying ashtray, where it has remained untouched for nearly three years.
“For me, seeing those ashes and that piece of cigar and knowing how he’d sit there in that chair and smoke cigars every day, and that’s his last one that’s not been touched?” Volma said. “It’s so special to me that I look at it, and I don’t want to touch it, I don’t want to disturb it.”