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At funeral, oldest WWII veteran, 112-year-old Richard Overton, remembered as devoted soldier

Overton was buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.
An honor guard removes Richard Overton's casket from a hearse. [NICK WAGNER/AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
By Mary Huber mhuber@statesman.com
Taylor Goldenstein tgoldenstein@statesman.com
Posted: Jan. 14, 2019 11:37 am

Gunshots sounded in a military salute that rang across the East Austin neighborhood Richard Overton called home for 72 years at a service where hundreds celebrated the life of a veteran who toiled as an Army truck driver and went on to charm many with his kind nature, warm smile and love of whiskey and cigars.

Before his death Dec. 27, Overton, 112, was the nation’s oldest living World War II veteran and its oldest man.

On Saturday, his body was lowered into the ground at Texas State Cemetery in a deep blue casket. Tucked into his jacket pocket was a Tampa Sweet cigar, which Overton was known to enjoy.

While much has been said of Overton’s penchant for whiskey and cigars, it was his devotion to his country and to God and the humility with which he aged that resonated most often during his funeral service and burial, which included a helicopter flyover, a three-volley rifle salute and remarks by Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Richard Overton was a Texas legend,” Abbott said at a public funeral Saturday morning at Shoreline Church in North Austin. “He loved this nation, and he put his faith in God almighty above all else.”

The governor presented the Overton family with a Texas flag that was flown above the state Capitol in Overton’s honor, and shared stories of how the celebrated veteran, at 108 years old, had challenged him to a wheelchair race.

“We don’t celebrate Richard Overton because of how long he lived, we celebrate him because of how he lived his life,” Abbott said.

About 1,000 people attended the service, including fellow World War II veterans, who lined the front rows, and other veterans and family.

“We very much enjoy the outpouring of love and support given to Richard,” cousin Volma Overton Jr. said. “Richard had a special gift of sharing his unconditional love with everyone, and that gift of love came back to him tenfold.”

In a documentary shown during the service, Richard Overton shared the secret to his long life: a dab of whiskey in his morning coffee, butter pecan ice cream at night and his trusty cigars.

In his remarks, Mayor Steve Adler called Overton the city’s great-great-grandfather, a national treasure and an Austin institution who remained patient despite the thousands of people who crowded to see him over the years.

“He aged with such grace,” Adler said. “He brought out the best in us. It was impossible to be around that man, who was gentle and respectful and kind, and not be gentle and respectful and kind in return.”

While those who spoke hailed the positivity Overton exuded throughout his life, they described a man who had endured great hardship.

Born in 1906 in Bastrop County, Texas, he was the grandson of slaves; his family had worked in the cotton fields in Tennessee. In 1942, when he was 36, Overton enlisted in the Army, joining the all-black 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion at a time when racism was rampant and the discrimination black soldiers endured further complicated the trials of combat.

“Richard and his comrades overcame those challenges with valor, with expertise and with professionalism,” Army Gen. John Murray said. “His story is one of a brave and selfless soldier, struggling to accomplish his mission in combat if for no other reason than so he and his friends could come home.”

Overton was deployed to the Pacific theater shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was stationed in Guam, Okinawa and Iwo Jima, until he finished military service in 1945.

While Overton’s occupation was listed as truck driver, he also was trained for combat and was considered an expert rifleman.

“It is important to remember the blood, sweat and tears that he shed to protect the freedoms that we all so much enjoy, and that, in many cases, too many Americans take for granted,” Murray said. “In one of our nation’s darkest hours, he chose to answer the call, and his service has never failed to inspire us.”

After the service, pallbearers carried Overton’s casket out in a procession of bagpipers. He was escorted by a police motorcade down Interstate 35 to the Texas State Cemetery on Navasota Street in East Austin, where he was buried next to his cousin, Austin civil rights leader Volma Overton Sr. The cemetery is the final resting place of Texas dignitaries such as Stephen F. Austin, Gov. Ann Richards, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, and is about a half-mile from the Hamilton Avenue home where Richard Overton lived most of his life. The city gave the street the honorary name “Richard Overton Avenue” in 2017.

Hundreds of people gathered at the cemetery for the burial. Many veterans wore uniforms, commemorative hats and other military attire and held their salutes throughout the ceremony.

Members of the Texas Army National Guard Military Funeral and Honors Team lifted the American flag from Overton’s casket and folded it, then handed it to Volma Overton Jr. After taps was played by a lone bugler, four military helicopters flew overhead.

“It is comforting to know that we will see him again, and what a great family reunion that will be,” pastor Sam Mata said. “He will embrace you, he will welcome you, he will show you around and tell you some stories and sit down and tell you how much he’s missed you.”

The funeral was something of a family reunion: About 350 members of Overton’s family were there, traveling from across the country to attend.

Martin Wilford, Richard Overton’s friend and caretaker for more than 40 years, said the high attendance was symbolic of how much love Overton gave and received.

“All I can say is thank God for the blessings that he shared among all of us today, a beautiful day,” Wilford said. “He’s in a better place.”

After the ceremony, friends and family members lit cigars, as they often did on the front porch of his home. They smiled and hugged, puffing on the final cigars they would share with Overton.

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