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Richard Overton: Cigar Lover & American Hero

Shane K. K's picture

Shane K.

“Whiskey’s the same as medicine if you take it right.” That’s one of my favorite Richard Overton quotes from National Geographic’s short film on one of America’s oldest World War II veterans. He was 109 when the film was made but lived to 112 and was the oldest man in the United States at the time of his death on December 27, 2018. Those stats are impressive but even more astonishing is the fact that Overton smoked twelve cigars a day, sometimes more. He started smoking in 1924 at the age of 18 and in his later years mostly smoked milder cigars, a machine-made brand, called Tampa Sweets. How many people will you encounter who can say they started smoking ninety-four years ago? It’s tough to believe cigars are bad for you considering Overton was active, healthy, and as sharp as a tack right up to the end.


Richard Arvin Overton was born on May 11, 1906, just outside Austin in Bastrop County, Texas. He was the grandson of slaves who worked on a plantation, owned by Judge John Overton, south of Nashville, Tennessee. Many of the Overton slaves migrated to Texas after emancipation.

The editors in Cigar Aficionado covered Richard Overton in multiple stories over the years, often on his birthday, which he celebrated with Texas Governor Greg Abbott at the governor’s mansion in 2015. Overton met President Obama who honored him on Veterans Day in 2013. Overton served in the U.S. Army from 1942 through 1945 in the all-Black 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion. He fought in some of the bloodiest battles in the South Pacific, including Iwo Jima, where 6,800 Americans died in action. Overton was an expert marksman with a confirmed 30 kills, and of his service he reflected, “man will kill you, but God’s the one keep you alive.” Overton attended church three or four times a week. He was a boundless source of wisdom whose resolute faith and simple approach to life was admired by all who got to meet him.

Overton would rise around 3:00 a.m., brewing and sipping the first of several cups of coffee, sometimes spiking them with whiskey, or “medicine,” as he called it. He ate ice cream every day, never locked his doors, and drove the same Ford pickup that he bought – with cash – in 1973. Overton never owned a credit card or took medications and always appeared content. His cigar consumption was about the only excess in his life, although he admitted to drinking his share of whiskey when he was a young man. He also drank a lot of milk and credited his longevity to it, along with staying on the go. Aches, pains, and worries failed to strike Overton like the Japanese bullets that blazed by his head when he performed the dangerous job of clearing airstrips in WWII. In 2015, he told Cigar Aficionado he was “still driving, still getting around, lying and telling the truth sometimes.”

Overton was honorably discharged in September of 1945 at the rank of sergeant. After the war, he returned to Austin where he worked as a driver for a furniture store and built the home he would occupy for the next 70 years. Overton had married twice and outlived both wives, though he never had children. He had a girlfriend during his last years who, at 90 years old, was twenty years his junior. More than anything, Overton loved to sit on his front porch, smoke cigars, and greet the folks who passed by. Family, friends, and neighbors considered Overton a pillar of the neighborhood, Texas, and the nation. When Overton passed away following a bout with pneumonia at the end of 2018, he was four months shy of turning 113. The street where he lived, Hamilton Avenue, was renamed Richard Overton Avenue in his honor.

Fire up a cigar and raise a sip of whiskey as a tribute to Richard Overton this 4th of July. Americans are blessed to share their heritage with a man who served his country and set such a righteous example during his 112 years on the planet.

“I may give out, but I never give up.”—Richard Overton

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