Six degrees of separation is what they say connects us all but I believe it’s closer to three degrees, really. And I also believe, reflective of this three degrees, a bonus benefit in us striving to consciously be kind to everyone who crosses our path is that we sometimes have no idea who exactly we’ve just crossed paths with.
Last month Richard Overton, America’s oldest World War II veteran, visited Memphis and was greeted at Memphis International Airport with a celebration in his honor. I’d wanted to be a part of this historic day, welcoming a man who at 111 years old has lived a rich life that includes the service to- and sacrifice for- our country, even when it meant having to serve as part of a segregated unit. Unfortunately I was out of town the day Overton arrived; the missed opportunity bothered me so much that I shared my misfortune in the weeks that followed with anyone who would listen, including the gentleman hard at work trying to pinpoint the problem of our malfunctioned air conditioning unit during yet another Memphis heat wave.
“I wish I could have met him and spoken with him even briefly,” I whined to Mr. James D. (J.D.) Smith, a retired National Airspace System (NAS) Specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration who so graciously helps family and friends when they run into snafus courtesy of their HVAC systems. Smith spent 41 years, 4 months and 1 day with the FAA and now spends much of his time here in Memphis giving back to those around him, using the vast amount of knowledge he acquired and skills he perfected during those years. So as he worked and listened I talked and complained. My eventual pause was followed by his surprise revelation: “You know Richard and I are cousins?”
Well be still my honorary-Southern heart; my mouth fell open and the questions couldn’t come out fast enough!
I learned that Smith’s great-great-grandfather and Overton’s grandfather were brothers. They are descendants of Emmaline Overton, a slave who lived on the plantation owned by Judge John Overton who was an advisor of President Andrew Jackson and who, in 1819, founded Memphis. During my next few meetings with Smith I got a crash-course in Memphis history, saw photos from Overton Family reunions and got a glimpse into Overton’s life as a wise and private patriarch whose humility transcends his many accolades. He is surrounded by people who love him dearly and take great care of him at his home in Austin, Texas and is recognized by the community for being one of its most admirable. In fact, Austin’s Mayor Steve Adler this year declared May 11 as Richard Overton Day.
Though I wish I’d experienced being able to meet Overton when he came to Memphis, what I have learned about his life and his family’s lineage through my conversations with Smith far outweigh any lingering disappointment. They are conversations I’m sure would never have happened had I not met Smith by way of his niece, whom I happened to meet and befriend years ago when our children were in Mother’s Day Out together. Now, almost seven years later, our chance meeting in front of a Midtown church led to my crossing paths with a man whose family can be traced back to the home of the founding father of Memphis and whose cousin is our country’s oldest living World War II veteran.
“Six degrees of separation is the idea that all living things and everything else in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other so that a chain of "a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.”
They say six. I say it’s three.
Photo Caption: Memphian Morgan Mayse with America's oldest WWII Veteran, Richard Overton.