When we first connected with Betty Soskin, the country’s oldest full-time national park ranger, we were immediately taken by her extraordinary attitude and sense of humor. When we asked her to share her story with WYSK, this was her response… “I have no secrets at this point in life, and am delighted at the delayed attention I’m enjoying in these years that are anything but ‘Twilight’. Having become the poster girl for every senior center across the country makes me eligible, I suppose, and breaking the mold serves its purpose.”
The Women You Should Know team offers our sincere thanks and gratitude to Betty for sharing her wisdom and rich experience with us.
By Betty Soskin – Upon reaching 92, I have collected so many memories and experiences. The story I want to share today is my national park story.
In 1942, I worked as a 20-year-old clerk in the Boilermakers Auxiliary 36 union hall in Richmond, California changing addresses on 3 x 5 file cards for shipyard workers. My parents were proud of me. Especially when you consider that when I graduated from high school three years before, the only opportunities open to young women of color were to work in agriculture or to be a domestic servant. Even though it was a Jim Crow union hall, my position at Boilermakers Auxiliary 36 was considered a step up. This was probably the equivalent of today’s young African American women being the first in their families to enter college.
Scroll now to 13 years ago and I was again back in the city of Richmond. This time as a field representative for a member of the California State Assembly, working in a one-person satellite office on constituency concerns and helping to determine what kinds of legislation might be needed in the district we represented.
This was the same year that there were discussions going on about planning an experimental urban park consisting of scattered sites throughout the city. This urban park is what we know as Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.
The historic Ford Assembly Plant was one of the sites being considered and because it was built on state-owned land, there was a seat at the planning table for the state of California with Department of the Interior and National Park Service representatives. That seat was filled by one small field representative of color, me!
I was the only person in the room who recognized that the dozen or more sites which would form this park were sites of racial segregation.
What gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering.
It was clear that those gathered round the planning table were professionals interested in the untold stories and lost conversations of the history that I represented. The true stories of how those years were lived were so much more powerful than the myths that we’d made up about them, and they soon became the roots upon which to build our park.
One might wonder if I’d become a genius over the decades since 1942. And, of course, this was not a case of personal accomplishment, but an indication of just how much social change had occurred in the nation over the ensuing years. This was not about me, but about an entire nation that had experienced that trajectory. It became obvious that it was important to have a place where people could re-visit segregation so they could learn how to move forward into a more compassionate future.
I eventually left my position with the state of California and became a consultant to this emerging park, and (at 85!) morphed into the role of an interpretive National Park Service ranger sensitive to identifying relevancy; an active social conscience; a record of political activism; and a person capable of working across the generations.
“I’ve outlived all those whose memories don’t agree with mine, so I’m now also a historian! Who argues with dinosaurs?”
At 92, I’m still feeling relevant. I do two presentations in our theater each week, guide two public bus tours each month, and carry a full schedule of engagements for educational institutions, corporate events, and civic organizations.
And I will be here until the day that I wake up and find that I’ve lost the ability to tie my own shoes, or really can’t find my car keys!
Betty Soskin is a National Park Service ranger at Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. She is the country’s oldest full-time national park ranger. Learn more about her on her blog by clicking here. For more from Betty, check out this great video from our friends at SheHeroes.