The Secret to Life

Words by Matt Cooper  Photos by Scott Wade

On a bright, east Austin afternoon, a two-ton excavator climbs its way onto the front yard of a 1940s post-war bungalow. Soon, the lot will be cleared, making way for a 3-story architectural marvel. It’s a common sight these days, part of a real estate boom that shows no signs of slowing.

The machine roars, lowers its steel claw and crushes through the roof. Across the way, two neighbors observe the impending demolition. One of them, Rocky Conly, recently moved up the street with his young family. The other, Richard Overton, who’s been here a while longer. Smoking one of about a dozen cigars he will enjoy today, Mr. Overton blows a puff of smoke into the air and muses, “I remember when they built that house.”

He would. As of last May, Mr. Overton is 110 years old, a “supercentenarian.” He moved to east Austin in 1945, when he bought his home for $4K. “That was a lot of money back in those days,” he notes.

Born outside of Bastrop in 1906 to Jim Gentry Overton and Elizabeth Franklin, Mr. Overton learned the value of hard work at an early age. “I was always working,” he recalls. “I picked cotton, pulled corn, shucked hay. I worked for 25 cents a day. And my Dad taught me to save my money.” One of ten brothers and sisters, he has long since outlived them all.

He recalls seeing his first car at a time when east Austin was made up of only dirt roads. He remembers the Austin streetcar that carried passengers east to 12th and Chicon. He married twice, sadly losing each of his wives to cancer, and never had any children.

He worked as a messenger under Governors John Connolly, Bill Clements, and Ann Richards, whom he recalls fondly. And true to his tireless nature, after a day’s work, he would often mow his neighbors’ yards to make a little extra money.

Walking into his home today is like walking into a time machine. Pictures and memorabilia from a bygone era line the walls. Well-wishing letters from politicians are framed, including his picture with President Obama. A display above the mantle holds several medals from his three years as a Sergeant and sharpshooter in World War II. “We went to hell and back,” he says, reflecting on his medals. “But if Uncle Sam calls, you gotta go.” Mr. Overton is the nation’s oldest living World War II veteran.

When talking about his experiences in war, a conversation with him quickly turns philosophical. “The Army teaches you to go forward,” he says. “If you go forward, you could get shot, but if you turn around and go the other way, you could still get shot. So you may as well go forward.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “But man can’t kill you, only God can do that.”

Parked in his driveway is his 1979 Ford pickup, which he bought new. He always loved to drive, and up until last year, he still was. Texas has no age restriction as long as elderly drivers pass a yearly eye exam and keep their information current. However, since his recent bout with pneumonia, friends and relatives have convinced him to stop, much to his dismay.

His ability to drive well past 100 was precisely how he met his companion, neighbor Earlene Love. Upon learning that she needed transportation to church, Mr. Overton was happy to oblige. She’s now a constant presence by his side. “We go to the grocery store, go to church, visit people in the hospital. She’s just a nice person.”

He graciously welcomes curiosity seekers who come to his door almost daily. They take pictures, shake his hand, drop off some cigars or whiskey. Inevitability, he is asked about his secret to longevity. He scoffs, says he doesn’t know, and chalks it up to good luck. However, the amount of goodwill Mr. Overton has created in his life is evident on the smiles of anyone who comes near him.

He doesn’t sleep much and he’s usually awake by 3 am. He eats very little, only when hungry. Yet there’s one item he never goes without. “I eat ice cream every night,” he says. “It makes me happy.”

As they watch the last scraps of the home being torn down, Mr. Conly asks, “I bet you’re tired of all these new people like me moving into the neighborhood.”

Mr. Overton puffs on his cigar and thinks for a moment. “Doesn’t bother me,” he responds. “Keep it moving forward.”

Richard Overton
Oldest surviving World War II vet
Moved to east Austin in 1945, buying his home for only $4000
Met President Obama in 2013 on a trip to Washington D.C.
Grand Marshall of the 2014 Austin Veteran’s Day Parade
Smokes 12 cigars a day
Still drinks whiskey
Goes to church every Sunday

In 2013, east Austin filmmakers Rocky Conly and Matt Cooper began filming some of the day-to-day life of Mr. Overton. They spent countless hours with him, listening to his stories and capturing his thoughts and reflections on what was then 107 years.

What resulted was a 13-minute short film completed earlier this year. The film has already garnered acclaim, screening at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the Cinequest Film Festival, the Heartland Film Festival and the LA Shorts Film Festival.

“After meeting Mr. Overton, I was inspired to just start following him with a camera,” says Conly. “Now, he is like a grandfather to me, and I feel blessed to be able to sit on the porch and talk with him.”

“We wanted to create the experience of a visit with Mr. Overton,” says Cooper. “We hope our film can help document some of the extraordinary life of this very special man.”

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