Richard Overton Gets a Heartfelt Send-off

Austin’s oldest man, America’s oldest World War II vet laid to rest at Texas State Cemetery

Photo by Jana Birchum

The rain and cold left early to make room for sunny skies and warm feelings as Austin, Texas, the nation, and the world sent Richard Overton on ahead. The East Austin icon, America's oldest man and oldest World War II veteran, who died in late December, was remembered Saturday, Jan. 12, as an avatar of grace and all that is and has been good about America during his 112 years.

Up in the media box in the top tier of the lofty Shoreline Church sanctuary, the fourth estate reflected on another Austin funeral of comparable import and complexion: that of Draylon Mason, the victim of a mad bomber, cut down before attaining the greatness many felt his for the taking. Mr. Overton's life was an Eastside story from the other end of the telescope – that of a modest man who, in a life well-lived, was given an extra measure of years, and for that became renowned, and who used those years and that fame to spread the joy of his quiet triumph. "I may give out," he said in the documentary short ("Mr. Overton") from 2015 that played before "The Old Rugged Cross" began the service in earnest, "but I never give up."

Well over 1,000 people, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, numerous other elected officials and civic leaders, a large U.S. Army contingent, and about 200 or so Overtons, gathered for the calm and flawlessly executed proceedings (one assumes a 112-year-old had the time to get his funeral plans just right). The touchstones of the Mr. Overton legend – cigars, whiskey, butter pecan ice cream – made repeated appearances, but so did Psalm 23 and his deep faith and unconditional love for all (even "in the presence of his enemies"), and paeans to his humility and guilelessness (as when Abbott admitted he declined Overton's invitation to a wheelchair race because he was afraid he'd lose), and to the Overton family's sizable impact on Austin as advocates for African-American rights (detailed by Adler).

Photo by Jana Birchum

And front and center was Richard Overton's service in wartime, as a 36-year-old enlisted master sergeant and engineer, under fire in some of the bloodiest fighting in U.S. Army history, in a segregated unit at a time when he'd be denied service or respect on the streets of his own hometown. "He'd say later that 'war is something you don't want to get into,'" said Lt. Gen. John Murray, commander of the Austin-based U.S. Army Futures Command, adding that Overton's exposure to combat at Palau, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa left him with what we'd now recognize as post-traumatic stress.

"It's important to remember Richard Overton's life wasn't always sunny," Murray noted. Segregated units such as the 188th Aviation Engineer Battalion "were set up to fail, but Richard and his comrades overcame those challenges with valor, expertise, and dedication to duty. ... His service left a lifelong legacy of honor, professionalism, and courage." Late in his long life, Overton's participation in the Honor Flight program – bringing veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the nation's war memorials – brought him to national attention and a White House invitation from Barack Obama.

Later that afternoon, Overton's casket was received with full military honors at the Texas State Cemetery, next to the grave of his cousin Volma Overton Sr., who led the fight to desegregate Austin's schools and whose son (Volma Jr.) represented the family throughout the day. As Overtons assembled in shirts marked "third cousin," "fourth cousin," and such, one was asked how exactly the two cousins were related. After starting to answer, she paused with a laugh: "I'm gonna have to go home and look at my book."

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Nina Hernandez, Jan. 4, 2019

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Richard Overton, Volma Overton Sr., Steve Adler, Greg Abbott, 112-year-old, Mr. Overton, cigars, whiskey, Maker's Mark, butter pecan, John Murray, Futures Command, NAACP, desegregation, World War II, Pacific theatre, post-traumatic stress, 188th Aviation Engineer Battalion, Psalm 23, Shoreline Church

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