At 111, America’s oldest veteran is still smoking cigars, drinking whiskey and loving life
AUSTIN, Texas — Richard Overton is right where he wants to be.
He’s sitting in a lawn chair on the front porch of the Austin home he built nearly 70 years ago, working on his fifth Tampa Sweet cigar on a 91-degree sunny day. The smooth tunes of the Isley Brothers flow from a portable speaker. Birds are chirping in the late afternoon breeze.
“I’m feeling pretty good today,” Overton says, emphasizing the word pretty, because any day spent on this porch smoking cigars is a pretty good day for the 111-year-old.
This is where you’ll find the nation’s oldest veteran for 10 hours every day when the weather is nice. His friends call it his “stage.” It’s where Overton sits and thinks about life, his starting in 1906, the same year as the first wireless radio broadcast and a year before the paper towel was invented.
On this day, Overton is wearing a red cardigan buttoned over a powder blue polo, with light blue slacks and a black World War II veteran hat. He’s smiling and joking and feeling thankful.
The previous week, Overton was wearing a hospital gown. He spent those sunny days stuck in a hospital bed with a 102-degree fever, in a non-smoking room, hooked to an IV as his body tried to fight off its latest bout of pneumonia.
Overton prayed and flirted with nurses. Four days later, he was back where he wanted to be, on his stage with the birds and two packs of cigars.
Life has slowed year by year for the lifelong Austin resident. He was once a soldier in the U.S. military, arriving by ship at Pearl Harbor in his segregated unit as black smoke filled the sky moments after the Japanese bombing. After returning from war, he spent the bulk of his career working at furniture stores, then at the Texas Department of Treasury. He was a marksman, with a keen eye for hunting rabbits.
“But now, I just sit out here and rest,” he says, releasing a plume of Tampa Sweet smoke.
Overton starts his mornings as early as 3 a.m., drinking two to four cups of coffee. He’ll walk around his house to increase blood flow to his limbs, then smoke his first of 12 daily cigars. If he can, he’ll fall back asleep. Every day, he’s eager for the sun and the neighborhood to rise.
The supercentenarian has been married twice. He never had kids. He’s outlived all of his closest relatives. He has a first cousin who lives down the street, and third cousins who stop by daily.
In December, they started a GoFundMe page, when the price of 24/7 in-home care made it improbable for Overton to remain in his Austin home. Without his house or porch, they feared the worst. But five months later, the GoFundMe page has raised nearly $190,000.
Overton has two caregivers who work 12-hour shifts each day. They make him grits with a glass of whole milk for breakfast, and anything from chicken to meatloaf to fried catfish for lunch and dinner.
They also keep track of his visitors, because people stop by all the time at the house on Richard Overton Avenue. That’s right. On his 111th birthday on May 11, the town renamed his street. Some 200 people came out for the party on his front lawn, lining up to take a photo with Overton like kids waiting to meet Santa Claus.
Many brought gifts, like fancy cigars and bottles of whiskey. That’s his drink of choice — a whiskey and Coke — and when his caretakers are pouring, it’s always more Coke than whiskey. His cousins estimate he received more than 40 bottles that day, now dispersed throughout his home in kitchen cabinets, a bedroom closet and dresser drawers.
Certificates, war medals and photos of those he’s loved adorn almost every flat surface in his home. There are photos of Overton when he was in the Army, with broad shoulders, tight skin and a thin mustache. There’s one with President Barack Obama, when the 44th president honored him at a Veteran’s Day ceremony in 2013, his first of two trips to the White House.
He’s met celebrities and politicians and athletes, each asking him the same question about his secret to longevity. His answer? God and cigars.
In 2015, National Geographic released a short documentary about Overton made by Austin filmmakers. At the time of filming, he was 106, and had just renewed his driver’s license. He stopped driving soon after.
Before his latest visit to the hospital, Overton used to take strolls up and down his street. Maybe he’ll do that again if he builds enough strength.
For now, he’s content spending his hours on the stage. He stares at planes as they fly overhead and wonders where they’re going. He talks and sings with the birds. He waves at honking cars, and gazes at the trees he planted long ago, their roots digging into the dirt with each passing year.
All the while smoking a Tampa Sweet.