At 93, Betty Reid Soskin is something of a celebrity.
The park ranger assigned to the Rosie the Riveter-World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, writes frequently on her blog, has a Wikipedia page, and has been interviewed by NPR and People.
She’s become so popular, she says, that the park’s tour audiences have doubled, tours are now booked months ahead, and the park has added tours to keep up.
There’s no question why Soskin enjoys her celebrity status: She’s seen it all and has lived “lots and lots of lives,” as she tells NPR.
Soskin served as a clerk in an all-black trade union during World War II, became a political activist and noted songwriter during the civil-rights movement, and now interprets her wartime experience through her stories.
But she is not simply the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service — Soskin helped shape what the park has become, first as a consultant and later as an interpretive park ranger.
She works five days a week, about five hours a day, and occasionally works extra hours. Most Wednesdays and Fridays, Soskin will spend the day answering emails and requests from her desk at headquarters in downtown Richmond. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays she’ll work at the Visitor Education Center and give two or three presentations in its small theatre.
Some days she’ll conduct bus tours through the sites that make up the national park or give presentations.
Soskin recently gave Business Insider an inside look at her experience.
Business Insider: How did you get started at the National Park Service?
Betty Reid Soskin: I entered as a state employee at the planning stages of an emerging national park in 2000. One of the scattered sites was the Ford Assembly Plant, which was designed by Albert Kahn and constructed upon state-owned land.
That means that, as a field representative for a member of the California State Assembly, there was a seat at the planning table because that important iconic building had been constructed on state-owned land. It was built on air rights. That placed me at the planning table, which eventually morphed into the role of a consultant to the National Park Service, which then evolved into a contract worker paid for by the Rosie Trust. I resigned my position with the State in 2003.
What were early influences on your career?
When one has lived through nine decades before entering the park service, holding many roles — wife, mother, artist, caretaker, merchant, administrative aide, field representative for a member of the state legislature, administrator for a research project for the UC Berkeley psychology department, chief of staff for a city councilman for the City of Berkeley — all added colour to my current career and influences my work in every way.
What skills are most useful to have to be a park ranger?
That would be dependent upon the field in which one is assigned. Since the National Park Service rangers cover the full spectrum of career opportunities — from botany, marine biology, and forestry to communications and graphic design — the required skills would reflect a variety of areas.
If one is in interpretation, people skills are surely a premium, and enough imagination and research abilities to enable one to communicate the themes of any particular park site.
I must admit, though, that I’m not a trained interpreter, and what skills I may process came in with me — having been acquired long before I discovered the park service.
Becoming an interpreter, however, allowed me to be able to identify and hone what skills I brought with me into a more marketable shape, but there is little that is newly acquired. That probably has to do with my age, and the extraordinary opportunity I experienced by being hired as an interpretive ranger at the age of 85. The fact that I came in as a primary source for the period being celebrated and memorialised — 1941 to 1945 — was surely a given.
What’s the pay like for a park ranger?
I have no idea. In fact, with today’s technological advantages, and since I never see my paycheck — I use automatic electronic transfers — I have no idea what I’m earning or precisely what the benefits are.
That would suggest that my earnings are not central to my upkeep at this point in life, and whatever I earn is in addition to my Social Security checks — also electronic transfers. I’m far beyond the need to even keep track.
It’s also kind of interesting that I’m collecting Social Security while still paying into the system through withholding — and it feels like someone is just not paying attention anymore — besides me, of course.
What would people be most surprised to know about being a ranger?
Probably the range of opportunity there is in the career. Park rangers have such a wide variety of choices to explore within the job category. The full spectrum is limitless.
What’s the best part about what you do?
I suppose it is — as I approach 94 years in my 10th decade — I remain contemporary because of my work and its relevance to today.
Having my wrinkles filmed in HD-TV.
What is the most memorable things you’ve experienced on the job?
Among the many tributes and honours I’ve received, two stand out as stunning: receiving the Fannie Lou Hamer Award from the graduating black students class at the University of California a few years ago at their commencement ceremony, and last year receiving a hand-crafted 12-inch-tall crystal cube in which a welder’s tool is suspended from today’s Boilermakers Union for my work for the all-black auxiliary created under a Jim Crow segregated local — by way of apology for those years of separation.
As the only still-living member of staff I accepted in their names. That was special. There have been so many such moments, like having the chance to visit the airfield where the Tuskegee Airmen were trained at Tuskegee University to deliver the Women’s Equality Day speech last fall.
What is your favourite moment on the job?
Just after I take a deep breath, exhale, and begin my talk in our little theatre — it’s magic and never the same.
Do you have plans to retire?
Why on earth would one want to do that?
How do you spend your down time?
I love to visit art galleries and go to plays. The Bay Area is rich with events, exhibits, and chances to attend festivals and community activities.
I also love to curl up with a good book and C-SPAN on occasion and hug my knees propped up with three pillows with some raisins or cashews at my elbow and explore life through my iPad.
I’m a prolific blogger and try to keep current on journaling my life for my children and grandchildren for when I’m no longer on this dimension.
What advice would you give to young people?
I’d never attempt to give such advice to anyone. The rate of change has accelerated to the extent that I don’t think I could ever imagine what life will be like for anyone now in their youth that could ever come from someone my age. I can’t imagine the world that my grandchildren will live in.
What lessons would you like to share?
Probably the most important lesson came within the past few years when I discovered the concept of conflicting truths.
There’s a place on one of the films that we show in our theatre called “Home-Front Heroes,” the story of what happened in the City of Richmond, California, during WWII and the Kaiser shipbuilding effort. In it, there is a moment when a woman (Agnes Moore) speaks behind the images of waving flags and marching people saying, “It was the greatest coming together of the American People that I’ve ever lived through.”
I’d stand there against the wall in the dark watching the faces of the audience and cringe! I’d think, “How can she say that!” As a woman of colour, I’d lived such a different history, and the statement recognised none of that.
Somewhere along the way I aged into a place where I began to hear that voice as speaking Agnes Moore’s literal truth. As an accurate expression of her reality. It dawned on me that life was filled with conflicting truths, and that as long as there was a place where her truth and mine could coexist, that was perfectly all right with me.
I wish I’d learned that when I was an adolescent. It would have saved me much pain and anguish. This is not an either-or world. It’s both-and. All of it is true, for somebody.
There’s nothing left to say except that life is still evolving and I only wish I’d not outlived my peer group! So few have chronicled these years, except for the wrong reasons.
I’m a 20-year participant in the Women’s Health Initiative and their questionnaire no longer holds any relevance to life as I’m living it. I refuse to believe that there aren’t a significant number of us living into these years actively, productively, and with gusto!
The medical professionals would have us believe that life has been extended. In far too many cases, my sense of things is that they have only prolonged death — that it’s just taking us longer to die.
That shouldn’t be the conventional wisdom. There are many who continue to find meaning and purpose in these years, and a few of us are even finding continuing fulfillment in the workplace. That is as it should be.
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