America's oldest veteran rejects life in an assisted-living facility to stay in the house he built after World War II

Key Points
  • At age 112, Richard Arvin Overton is the oldest verified World War II veteran and believed to be the third-oldest man in the world.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs would pay for him to move into an assisted-living facility, but he would prefer to stay in his home in Austin, Texas, for the remainder of his life.
  • His family set up a GoFundMe to help pay for the $15,000 a month in-home care bills.
Richard Overton in his home in Austin, Texas.
Photo courtesy of Overton family/Wyatt McSpadden

AUSTIN, Texas — Richard Arvin Overton was born before Henry Ford introduced the Model T, before the Titanic embarked on her doomed maiden voyage and before New Yorkers watched the first ball drop in Times Square.

At 112, he is America's oldest veteran and is believed to be the third-oldest man in the world. He needs costly 24-hour care, even if he has become adept at fighting off bouts of pneumonia.

But Overton isn't about to give up living in the Austin, Texas, house he built after he returned from World War II for life in an assisted-living facility — even if he can't afford the costs himself. His care bills total about $15,000 a month, which is why his family set up a GoFundMe campaign to help with the expenses.

The Department of Veterans Affairs would pay for him to move into an assisted-living facility, but the supercentenarian's home means everything to him.

"That home is his heart, his memories, it is his everything," Overton's cousin Volma Overton, 70, told CNBC. "Moving him out of this house is what's going to put him in the grave."

"I've talked to so many people my age who moved their loved ones out of their homes and that really seemed to be the beginning of the end," he added.

The house he built

After World War II, Richard Overton came to Austin and built the home he resides in today.

"I paid $4,000 for this house in 1945," he told me last year from his cozy living room. He pointed to an original photo of his home hanging on the wall.

A framed photograph of Richard Overton's home hangs on the wall of his house in Austin, Texas on November 4, 2017.
Amanda Macias/CNBC

"I ain't trying to move. This is where I sit and rest," he said with a smile.

Since December 2016, the family has raised more than $280,000 for Overton's round-the-clock care, medicine, equipment and food.

"The GoFundMe is totally everything," Volma Overton told CNBC. "He does not have the funds to pay $15,000 a month. That money was gone a long time ago."

Overton said his cousin has no children and has outlived almost everybody in the family. "The GoFundMe is his lifeline, period," he said.

A man who remembers World War I and World War II

Overton was born on May 11, 1906, in Bastrop County, Texas, about an hour outside of Austin. He is the grandson of a slave and grew up in one of America's darkest periods. He also witnessed the repeal of Jim Crow laws, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the election of the first black president of the United States.

He began his military career with the Army on Sept. 3, 1940, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

In December 1941, he was sent to Hawaii immediately after the devastating surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor. Like the rest of the nation, Overton was thrust into World War II.

He served in the Pacific Theater with the Army's segregated 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion from 1942 to 1945. He held a series of jobs in the military, including burial detail, base security and driver for an officer.

A photograph of Richard Overton in his military uniform is propped up against a folded American flag in his home.
Amanda Macias/CNBC

When I first met Overton last year, he was sitting in a worn tan armchair alongside a wall of windows. The wood-lined walls of the room were decorated with a portrait of Overton and various commemorative plaques.

After lighting his third cigar of the day, he smiled at me as we were introduced.

"Nice to meet ya ma'am," he said while reaching for my hand. He was surrounded by members of his extended family and a nurse who excused herself to make him a sandwich.

He wore a peach button-down shirt with brown slacks, a black World War II veteran hat and bulky New Balance tennis shoes, chiming in as he listened to the conversations swirling around him.

I picked up one of the five packs of Tampa Sweet cigars next to his armchair.

"I started smoking these cigars since I was 18 years old," said Overton, who smoked more than 12 cigars a day. "I don't inhale them. All I do is smoke 'em and blow the smoke out. I never swallow the smoke."

Richard Overton smokes a cigar in his living room in Austin, Texas.
Amanda Macias/CNBC

Overton also laced his morning coffee with Jack Daniel's.

"These are my best friends since everyone else keeps on leaving me," he laughed.

"Do you miss the military?" I asked.

"Oh sure, but the war wasn't no fun. You never know what's coming and you never know what's going," Overton said, lighting another cigar. "I think about war every day. It runs across my mind every day."

"I remember World War I, too. I wasn't old enough to fight, but I remember things," adding with a nod.

A portrait gifted to Richard Overton on his 110th birthday by a fellow veteran.
Amanda Macias/CNBC

"So, how are you feeling today?" I asked.

"I'm doing fine. Every time they [doctors] come it's the same thing. They can't find anything. It's because I know how to take care of myself," he said.

"I've got my good health and as long as I have my good health I'll keep dancing," Overton added as his family laughed.

Last summer, Overton was admitted to a hospital to undergo treatment for his third bout of pneumonia. After fighting off the affliction, which was found in both lungs, Overton returned home to rest in lieu of going to a care facility.

He was battling the tail end of another case of pneumonia over Memorial Day weekend, so he wasn't available for a new interview.

"It looks like he has about beat that," Volma Overton said of his cousin. "Fortunately, Richard isn't in a major need of anything. He only takes a few pills and hasn't really had a major health problem."