Kirkwood family celebrating 95-year-old WWII vet

Family and friends from all around the country on June 8 to help Henry Thomas Austin celebrate his 95th birthday.

Henry Thomas Austin will be holding court on June 8 at Bessie Branham Recreation Center in Kirkwood.

He is not sure yet what he will wear but his 8-year-old granddaughter McKinley Parks, who licked sickle cell anemia with a bone marrow transplant when she was 3 years old, has that covered.

“She will be picking out my outfit,” Austin, his face breaking into a big smile, said on June 5.

The occasion is to celebrate Austin’s 95th birthday, and his large family is as happy to make a big to-do about him, as he is to be on the receiving end of it.

“I will be sitting right here [in his favorite arm chair] until they come to get me,” Austin said. “Then when I get there, I will be sitting there talking to everybody as they come around to greet me.”

Kirkwood family celebrating 95-year-old WWII vet - Cody

Iris Cody

Kirkwood family celebrating 95-year-old WWII vet - Eberhart

Wilhelmenia Eberhart

Iris Cody, the daughter who lives with him, said they celebrate his birthday every year but in 2014, when he turned 90, they had a big party. Austin’s eight living children also made a pact that going forward, they will host a big shindig for him every five years.

Wilhelmenia Eberhart, Austin’s oldest daughter and the third of his nine children, said their father deserves all of the attention.

“He is really the best father, best grandfather, best great-grandfather, best great-great-grandfather, best father-in-law ever,” she said. “His family means everything to him. He is really a family man.”

Austin, who was born on June 9, 1924, is basking in all the attention.

Out-of-town family members had already started arriving on June 5 for Saturday's festivities.

Patrick, his youngest son, who lives in Virginia, was already home with his wife, Gladys. Their son, Patrick Travis, and daughter, Jazmin, were on their way.

Altogether, Cody says there will be more than 200 family members and friends at the party, including her father’s 84-year-old sister, Nancy Greer, who lives in College Park, and maybe his 93-year-old brother James, who lives in Detroit.

“They are coming from all over,” she said. “Some from Chicago, Detroit, Oklahoma, Arizona, Virginia, and Florida too.”  

On hearing the list, Austin grinned from ear to ear.

“That’s how many people know me, I guess,” he said, “and like me.”

Eberhart said the family, which includes six other siblings – Johnny Williams (Austin’s son before he met his wife), William, (who is deceased), Trudy Jones, Alberta Parker, and twins, Frank, and Frankie Bennett – is lucky to still have their patriarch.

“We tell him all the time, ‘Daddy we are blessed for you to be here,” she said. “Most people your age got dementia, or are in a nursing home.”

She said her father is relatively healthy, and only takes a blood pressure pill and B12 vitamins daily. He also has a catheter, is a little hard of hearing, and walks with the aid of a cane or a walker. 

“That’s it,” she said. "Otherwise he is good to go."

Four days from his 95th birthday, Austin is as sharp as a tack. He plays games and listen to Sam Cook and BB King on his laptop, and he stays on his cell phone every day keeping track of his offspring and their growing brood – 20 grandchildren, 58 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

“He talks to everybody every almost day,” Eberhart said. “If he hasn’t heard from you, he calls to see if you are alright.” 

Independent 

His daughters say he is fiercely independent and still takes care of his daily grooming. If Cody decides to sleep in any morning – no problem.

Austin knows his way around the kitchen and when it pleases him, he still cooks his favorites – grits, eggs, bacon and sausage.

“He has a good appetite,” says Eberhart, who goes with Austin on his doctor’s appointments, and pays his bills.  Her dad takes a daily walk along his street, stopping to chat with his neighbors, who all know him.

“I go about a block with the cane,” he says with a laugh. “If I use the walker I can go further.”

Austin, who still drives, just renewed his driver’s license last week, but his daughters say they keep him off the interstates.

He often drives his truck to the corner store in Kirkwood, and to visit his good friend Willie Durden in Clarkston – the city where his grandparents, Henry and Lizzie Dawson, and his granddad’s sister Frances Redmond were the first blacks to settle there in 1898.

His parents, Thomas and Alberta, had five children, three boys and a girl. Austin is the oldest, and one of three still living.

Kirkwood family celebrating 95-year-old WWII vet - War pic

Henry Thomas Austin was drafted into the Army in March 1943, during World War II. He served two years and 8 months because in 1945, he re-enlisted for an extra year.

Raised in Clarkston, Austin was drafted into the Army in March 1943, during World War II. He served two years and 8 months because in 1945, he re-enlisted for an extra year.

He made the rank of sergeant, and was stationed in North Africa, and later in the Philippines. Austin was discharged from the Army on Dec. 8, 1946, and returned home to Clarkston that same month.

Not long after, he met Zenobi Jordan, at a bus stop. She was on her way home from school but Austin, who was six years older, said he knew she was the one for him.

They married on Dec. 18, 1948, raised their eight children, first in Clarkston and later in Kirkwood, where, in 1964, they relocated their family to Dunwoody Street.

Austin learned the value of hard work early. His uncle, Edwin Dawson, taught him to lay brick. By age 9, he was working alongside him.

On his return from the war, Austin worked jobs with his uncle, until he started his own business, Austin Contracting Co., which operated successfully in Clarkston for decades.

“All those brick houses along Hambrick and Rays Road, he and his uncle laid the bricks for them,” Eberhart said, adding that they used to call her father “the black mayor of Clarkston.”

“If anything happened with the kids or anybody got in trouble, they called him to go see about them, and to make sure they were doing right,” she said.

His wife died in 1996, at age 65, from lung cancer.    

Fifty-five years later, he still lives in the same house. A year ago, Cody moved in to look after her father.

“I don’t live with her,” he said. “She lives with me.”

His kids credit his long, relatively healthy life to his temperament.

“Don’t nothing bother him,” said Eberhart, who lives in Conyers. “Don’t nothing faze him.”

Cody said her dad is “just happy go lucky. God keeps him going,” she said.

Eberhart said that family members are always around Austin.

“Every week somebody is checking on him so he doesn’t have time to be lonely,” she said.

Austin says it’s definitely a plus to be surrounded by family members.

“When you can look up and see them walking by or bringing you something, it makes you feel good," he said, "especially when they come a long way to see you.” 

His daughters says he taught all 20 grandchildren to drive. When grandson Patrick Travis was 16, and was thinking about dating girls, he called his granddaddy for advice.

“I told him to stay away from girls,” Austin said.

But when Patrick Travis was going to the prom, his grandfather gave him money to take his date to breakfast after their photo shoot.

Gladys said her son asked Austin why he needed to do take the girl to breakfast.

“He told him that that young lady could go to the prom with anybody, and since she was going with him, he should treat her to breakfast,” she said. “I thought that was a good thing that he told him.”

Austin says he is enjoying a long life because he doesn’t drink alcohol, speaks to everybody, and stays in his lane.

“If you don’t try to tell people what to do, you will have a long life,” he said.