5 Minutes with Betty Reid Soskin, America's Oldest Park Ranger
Although Betty Reid Soskin has recently received national attention as the country’s oldest active national park ranger, she’s not resting on her laurels: she’s still got important work to do, and she says she’s got little time to waste. Three times each week, Soskin, 93, interprets the country’s history at Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.
“I try to reinvent myself every decade,” Soskin once told TV host Arsenio Hall. To which Hall replied, “That kind of makes you the Madonna of park rangers,” drawing laughs from the crowd and from Soskin herself.
In fact, Soskin laughs frequently—giggles, really—which is testament to her optimism and still youthful outlook: From her first job in 1941 as a 20-year-old clerk in a Jim Crow-segregated union hall to serving as a member of the California State Assembly, to becoming a National Park Service ranger at 85, Soskin views her trajectory as analogous to the country’s.
“This isn’t a case of personal achievement,” she told Sierra by phone while on a short break from her rangering. “This isn’t a Betty story. This is what we all did. And some of us did it kicking and screaming. And some of us are still kicking and screaming,” says Soskin, laughing, as if to underscore the importance of persistence.
Soskin, who served as a consultant early on to help shape the park, sees herself as a truth teller at heart, and though she never worked on a production line as a riveter, she views her history as relevant to the park’s mission, which is to explain the narrative of how the country hung together during the trying time of World War II. Soskin’s great grandmother was born a slave and died in 1948 at 102, and her mother lived to be 101. Soskin attended Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration with a photo of her great grandmother in her breast pocket, standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.
“All of that American history, slavery through reconstruction, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Scottsboro Boys, and the First World War and through Black Lives Matter...all occurred within the lifetime of three women who were adults at the same time,” says Soskin. She remembers how the country faced down the threat of fascism, and she believes those lessons can serve us today.
“I realized that we can use those years as a template to ensure our grandchildren will have a livable planet. I think we’re on the right track. I really do. I just wish I were going to be around longer,” she says, again, with another laugh.
When asked what she’s learned thus far, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Never be satisfied with answers. There are always questions beyond the answers, and that’s where life is the richest.”