Buster Austin still cuts his lawn with a riding lawn mower, and he still wants to go to a certain fast food restaurant every chance he gets.
At 106 years old, Austin is a celebrity of sorts at the Madison County Senior Activity and Wellness Center in Huntsville, according to Director Barbara Smith. Austin is the oldest person at the center, she said.
“It’s very encouraging. When we had his birthday party last year, everybody wanted to get their picture taken with Buster. He’s a local celebrity,” she said.
Smith said she’s impressed with more than just Austin’s longevity.
“The thing I’ve noticed when I can see the door is that he opens the door for his wife, still,” Smith said. “So that really impressed me, at 106 to be able to open the door for his wife.”
Austin’s wife, Gayle, said her husband gets tired a little quicker these days, but really hasn’t changed that much.
“He just does like he always did. I think he gets a little tired and sits a little more than he used to,” she said. “But he insists on mowing the lawn. That’s what he thinks he has to do.”
Austin was born Oct. 20, 1912, on Penitentiary Mountain, and raised on the family homestead south of Kingston.
Austin married Vercie Dotson when he was 25. She passed away in 1995. In 2000, he married his current wife, Gayle, who is 92 years old.
Austin was raised along the Kings River. When he was able, he purchased 200 acres next to his family’s homesteaded land. He and Gayle live there today, about a quarter-mile from Highway 74.
Gayle said her parents and Austin’s parents homesteaded at the same time close to each other.
Buster Austin said he enjoys going to the senior center. When he arrived last Friday, numerous other seniors greeted him as an old friend.
“Eating is the main thing,” Austin said about his visits to the senior center. “It’s a nice place to come to and visit the old folks, you know.
“I’m about the only one in my class. I’m the oldest that’s coming here now.”
Smith said Austin also has a taste for McDonald’s.
“He made it to our last dance we had and enjoyed the music,” she said. “He prefers McDonald’s over our food.”
Austin said he’s “been a lot of places” in his lifetime, including California and Washington state, where he once worked at an apple orchard and ranch. He’s also worked in a Navy shipyard in California and worked the hayfields in Wyoming.
Austin was born before World War I and was called up twice during World War II, but was rejected for military service due to a “fluttering heart.”
Austin had three brothers and three sisters growing up. One brother died in his late 60s, while his older brother lived to be 97, as did his mother. His father passed away in his 50s.
Austin attended the Loy School near Kingston, where a sister was a teacher. When he was 6, an exciting event happened at the school.
“I was in school and it came right down the hill,” Austin said of an airplane. “One of the boys seen it out the window. He said, ‘airplane!’ We’d seen the pictures and he just hollered out and said, ‘there’s an airplane coming!’ The teacher, it was a man teacher, he said, ‘everybody get out of here.’ He was the first one out the door.”
Austin said he “had to work pretty hard” in his early life.
“My dad died when I was barely 14. There wasn’t no welfare then. Me and my older brother had a living to make,” Austin said.
Austin found he had the ability to lead a team of mules. A trade brought two mules to the family farm.
“Me and them growed up together. They were 3 years old and I was 14,” he said.
Austin said he hauled wooden staves for use in barrels to Kingston, where they would be taken to a train.
“They had little mills around here,” Austin said. “They called them mills. They’d run those staves out in the rough, then we’d take them and haul them for a penny apiece. My mules, they could haul 500 of them.”
“So he made $5 a day,” Gayle said.
After his older brother got out of World War II, the two of them headed to Wyoming to work in the hayfields, which they did more than once. Gayle said “there were no jobs” around Kingston.
Austin said his first wife was a “good manager,” especially when it came to money.
“When we married, we had $35 between us,” he said. “No home, no nothing. The first thing you know, we had money in the bank. She was a good manager.”
Austin built a house when he and his wife returned from working in the shipyards during World War II. Austin still has a handful of cows on his 200-acre farm.
“He says he’s going to sell them but he ain’t,” Gayle said with a laugh.
Austin said his first motorized vehicle was a 1952 Chevrolet truck. After he brought it back from Washington state, he gave the car to his older brother.
Gayle said she met Austin three or four years before they married in 2000.
“My mother and him were raised like a quarter of a mile apart,” Gayle said. “They homesteaded – the old people homesteaded at the same time. They went to Harrison and worked all their papers and such. [I] never met him then, never seen him.”
Austin said he’s had a pretty healthy life.
“Yeah I have. I don’t like doctors. I never did,” he said with a laugh.
Austin said he likes to eat “garden stuff.” Despite growing up along the Kings River, he said he’s never liked fish.
“I like anything but fish. I don’t eat fish. I never did like it. All my folks, every one of them, they were just crazy after fish and I wouldn’t eat it.”
Austin, who didn’t have children with his first wife, said he can remember taking a .22 to “fish” for his mother. Usually he would shoot two fish, unless one was large enough.
About Austin’s health, Gayle said, “I think he should come to the center more, but he just likes to sit there [at home]. We go somewhere every day.”
Although Austin doesn’t drive anymore, he’s quick to show you a driver’s license. Gayle drives them on their journeys.
“Then he’s McDonald’s happy, so we go to McDonald’s every day,” she said.
Austin gets a burger, apple pie and coffee at his favorite restaurant.
“Mostly I think he likes the apple pie and coffee. You know, we could do the same thing at home, but it just wouldn’t be the same,” Gayle said.
Austin still remembers working his mules, and said those are still fond memories.
“I always liked to drive a team, I guess because I did it when I was a kid. I don’t know why. [I] never did have trouble getting them to pull,” he said.
Smith said senior centers are ideal for elderly people who want to exercise, meet and socialize, and just to get out of the house.
“The exercise programs really are beneficial,” she said. “We have exercise of some form or another every day.”
Smith said the number of elderly Americans who exercise is under 10 percent.
“Being physical helps lower diabetics. If you just do so much exercise a day it will help lower your insulin,” she said.
LouAnn Nolan teaches several health classes at the center. She said the elderly need exercise and social interaction in their lives.
“The main thing is self-care. Quality of life is really important,” she said. “And positive attitude. We all know that. A big part of it is movement and making sure you maintain a healthy weight, but keep moving.”
Nolan said elderly men need to get out of the house more.
“Socialization is so important. Isolation among older men is a real problem ... that’s why senior centers are so important across the nation.”