What I Learned Sitting on a Porch with America’s Oldest Living Veteran

The view from Richard Overton's front porch.

The view from Richard Overton’s front porch. Author provided

Richard Overton is the oldest living veteran in the United States. 110 years old. He was drafted at age 36 in 1942 at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. He fought in the Pacific—Hawaii, Guam, Palau and Iwo Jima—in World War II. He also happens to live down the street from me. Still.

When I saw online that he was having trouble affording the cost of an in-house nurse and care that would allow him to continue living at home (in the house he partly built with his own hands after returning from the war), I of course, donated and then I reached out to his third cousin to see if I might be able to come by and meet this great man.

There was a generation of Americans who used to sit on their porch and enjoy life as it happened. Richard is one of the last living members of that generation. Sitting on that porch with him, shooting the shit, I picked up a few things I wanted to share with you. He ate ice cream out of a coffee cup, I asked questions. He humored me, I tried to be as little of a bother as possible. I won’t pretend we had a particularly deep conversation, though I think anything that comes out of the mouth of a person older than a century has a certain intrinsic wisdom to it.

I walked away that afternoon with a feeling of having experienced something very special. It made me hopeful, to be around a man who had seen and lived through so much and was still sitting there on his porch. It made me sad too (what would it have been like to have another 20 years with my own grandfather?). Mostly, I just wanted to share what I learned with you.

The man’s a treasure. I hope you’ll help keep him on that porch for as long as he wants to sit there.

Take It Day By Night
I asked Richard, other than God—he’s a faithful man—if he had a secret for living this long. “A secret? No, no secret,” he said. “Just live it.” Day by day?, I asked. He shook his head. At 110, day by day is too long. “Take it day by night,” he said.

Forget What The Doctors Say
Everyone I know that aspires to live for a very long time is obsessive about their health. Everyone I know that’s actually lived for a very long time doesn’t seem to think about it at all. I realize that’s purely anecdotal but it’s hard to sit next to a man who has been alive 110 years old and still smokes 10 to 12 cigars a day and not think maybe it’s all a bit of a crapshoot. The man drinks his whiskey, smokes his cigars, eats his ice cream. He does what he wants. And he’s still here. Good for him.

It’s All Very Simple
How does it feel to be the oldest veteran? “Never think about it.” You seem very calm and relaxed. Have you always been that way? “Yes.” Do you think about dying? “Nothing I could do about it.” Like I said, there is a certain sagacity to anything uttered by someone who has been alive that long. There is also a simplicity and a finality to the answers. A younger person would pontificate, would chatter, would argue this way or that way. Richard gives you his one word answer. Maybe it’s because he’s old and tired, but it just as easily might be the fact that after all those years complicated things become very simple. No reason to think about dying. Of course you learn how to forgive people. Sure, he’s calm and relaxed, it’s the only way to be. A couple words is all you need when you’ve seen it all.

Just Sit There
I’ve mentioned Richard’s porch a couple times. It’s a wonderful thing. In East Austin, they’re tearing down most of the old houses and building cool looking new ones. You know what they’re not putting back on them? Porches. You can’t even see the street from my house, the builder put a 10 foot fence around the whole thing. But Richard spends four or five hours a day out on his, on a chair he refers to as his throne. He showed me the railing that rings the porch and the waist high plants which go around it. Want to know why they’re there, he asked? It was because women used to wear skirts and he wanted them to be able to sit comfortably and privately. The man just enjoys life on that porch, enjoys the present moment, maybe remembers the past a little. I asked him what he thinks about up there. “Different things,” he said. “I look at the trees.” I did too. It was nice.

Richard Overton sitting on his porch in 2017.

Richard Overton sitting on his porch in 2017. Author provided

History is Very Short
It’s fascinating to think that when Richard was born Theodore Roosevelt was president. Overton is the oldest living American veteran now, but when he was born, Henry L. Riggs was still alive. Riggs was a veteran of the Black Hawk War (1832) and he was born in 1812…and Conrad Heyer, the Revolutionary War veteran and the oldest and earliest person to be photographed (born in 1749) was still alive when Riggs was born. Three overlapping lives, that’s all it took to get back to before even the idea of founding the United States. Richard’s brother fought in the first World War. He told me he remembered seeing Civil War veterans around when he was a kid. Not many, but they were there. It was Texas—those men fought to keep his mother in slavery. How long ago all that horribleness seems. How recent it is at the same time. I’m bringing my son over to meet Richard soon. He’s three months old. I want him to shake hands with a man who walked the earth when TR was in the Oval Office, who shook hands with Obama, who lived through the Spanish Influenza, who stepped foot on more Japanese islands than he should have had to, who came home after fighting for this country and had to put up with segregation, who bought a house for $4,000 and lived in it for seventy years (it’s now worth more than 100x that), who worked for some of the most famous governors in Texas (Ann Richards was his favorite), who at 110 is still going strong.

A Wise Man Knows Nothing
Another observation about really old people: They’re never the ones that try to tell you what to do. A 40 year old will stop a stranger on the street and tell them to pull up their pants or remind a young woman she needs to smile more. An octogenarian and beyond just lets people do what they do. I asked Richard if he had any advice for young people: “I don’t know.” I asked him again later, “Never get in trouble.” They say that Socrates was wise because he knew how little he knew. I think that’s the real lesson in aging, a certain humility and indifference. An acceptance of other people, that they’ll find their own way and they don’t need your moralizing. Besides, staying alive is a full time job.

Know What You Like (And Hold Onto It)
I mentioned it above but Richard has been living in the same house in Austin since coming home at the end of World War II. He refuses to leave either—he likes it there. He’s got a couple of old cars in the driveway too. Knowing what you like is the first step to wisdom and old age, said Robert Louis Stevenson. There’s something comforting in the thought of Richard being happy and active in his community, enjoying life and sitting on the same porch for over seven decades. In an age that promotes constant change, Richard’s message in a way is the opposite. Find what you like and stick with it.

Community is the Key To Everything
Richard pointed across the street—the cactus, he planted that. The porch across the street? He helped build that. The electrical pole on the corner—it used to have an unsafe number of houses connected to it until he called and called and the power company finally fixed it. He told me the story of a woman who fell into the cactus and how he helped her out and helped her pull out the thorns. A woman drove by while we sat there and waved. For over half a century, he’s been a watchdog in that neighborhood, helping people, making it better. Now that he’s outlived nearly every relative on earth, the community is helping take care of Richard. His third cousin—do you even know your third cousin, would they help you?—comes by almost everyday to sit with him and talk. His third cousin is the one who is keeping Richard in his home and looking out for him. That’s community. That’s family.

Enjoy the Absurdity of Life
The most animated Richard ever got was when he told me a story about the enormous pecan tree in his front yard. It seemed like an ordinary tree to me, until he told me his dog planted it seventy years ago. They had a pecan tree in the back, and the dog would grab the nuts and bury them in the front yard. With glee, Richard told me how eventually the tree grew and now it’s so big it’s nearly pushing up the foundation of his house. He loved the absurdity of it—a dog planting a tree! He was laughing at it still, seven decades later. The philosopher Chrysippus supposedly died laughing at a donkey eating his figs. It occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a bad way for Richard to go someday either, sitting on his porch, thinking about his dog, laughing at the tree that’s going to outlast all of them, and many of us.

***

Richard on his porch.

Richard on his porch. Author provided

It’s a shame on this nation to me that Richard Overton, at 110 years old and as our oldest living veteran, is having to ask for money on the internet to stay in his home and pay for medical care. Who doesn’t agree that our oldest living hero deserves to be taken care of? It’s been my belief that America has always been great and it’s great because of men like Richard. It’s great because when his third cousin created a GoFundMe campaign, thousands of people do show up to help. But they shouldn’t have to. Richard and his family shouldn’t even have to ask. (I’ll ask for them though: Please keep helping!)

But I don’t want to end this on a negative note. Because political dysfunction aside, Richard is still here and he doesn’t look like he is going anywhere. I was lucky to meet him and learn from him. I hope I’ve been able to pass along a little of what that was.

I have no idea how long I will live for, or what old age will look like for me, but I feel more connected to the past after meeting Richard. I could feel his wisdom and his energy and am better for it. Meeting him was one of the treats of my life.

So I’ll end this piece by thanking him—for that—and for what he’s done for the rest of us the 110 years he has been on this planet.

Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph and four other books. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and you can subscribe to his posts via email. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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