Whisky and cigars. They're two of the three pillars of my employer, M. Shanken Communications Inc., the publisher of Cigar Aficionado, Whisky Advocate and Wine Spectator magazines. But they're also the indulgence of a very special person, Richard Overton. You may have never heard of Mr. Overton, but today he celebrated his 109th birthday.
Turning 109 is notable for anyone, but Mr. Overton is more than just your average centenarian. He is being called the oldest living World War II veteran in the United States. And yes, he's a cigar smoker who also enjoys his whiskey. I chatted with him this morning to wish him a happy birthday, and to maybe get a bit of life advice from a man who has lived an extraordinary one.
The voice at the other end of my cellphone was full of energy, clear and bold, not quite what I was expecting. And his first question caught me a bit by surprise.
"How old are you?" said Mr. Overton.
"Forty-six," I said with a smile.
"Forty-six?" he answered. "Why you're in diapers."
Mr. Overton has been smoking cigars far longer than I've been alive. He smoked his first cigar 90 years ago at the age of 18, and he has smoked regularly for nearly all of his very long life, which included serving in the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. He went to Guam, Hawaii, Iwo Jima and Palau. "I lost a lot of my friends," he told me solemnly. "Bullets went behind me, above me, why they didn't hit me, I don't know."
He enjoys cigars every day, and prefers them mild and on the smaller side—he doesn't enjoy the fat cigar trend, doesn't like a cigar that's too big to hold comfortably in your mouth.
Ricardo B. Brazziell/AP
He's not picking his cigars from the pages of Cigar Aficionado—his go-to smoke is a machine-made cigar called a Tampa Sweet, a bargain brand that sells for about 40 cents a cigar, and he estimates he smokes a dozen a day.
"I don't inhale them," he told me. "It's the good taste."
Mr. Overton still drives (a 1973 Ford pickup) and still works around his yard a bit. He's a fierce believer in moving around. "You've got to stir around a lot—your muscles get dry, your blood gets slow," he told me. "You need to get up and move around. If your muscles get sluggish, it slows your blood down."
He woke up this morning at about three, which isn't unusual for him, made some coffee, and gave it his typical extra: a splash of whiskey. "You put a taste of whiskey in your coffee in the morning, and it's like medicine," he says. After that, he lit his first cigar.
"The cigars are my friend," he says. "They keep me company."
Mr. Overton has had plenty of company these days, and he has become somewhat of a local celebrity in his hometown of Austin, Texas. His neighbor, who threw an early birthday party for him, called him: "the coolest neighbor on the planet."
Mr. Overton has met the president (Honor Flight Austin, a charitable organization that flies World War II veterans so they can visit memorials to their years of service, flew him to Washington D.C. on Veteran's Day) and his phone was ringing constantly today with birthday well-wishers. He was scheduled to meet Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this afternoon.
After that? Back to his porch, no doubt, where he can be found most days, or in his yard, puttering around. Certainly with another one of his cigars.
When I finished the phone call, I stood up, walked around the office. I don't know about you, but I'm taking Mr. Overton's advice to heart. And when you're smoking your next cigar, think of him. He certainly earned the right to light up.