If you’re looking for an example of how staying active and connecting with the outdoors can lead to a healthy lifestyle, then look no further than Betty Reid Soskin.
For the past 16 years, Soskin has worked for the US National Park Service, starting as a part-time temporary employee but moving into a permanent full-time position 11 years ago. That isn’t such an unusual career path for anyone who is looking to go to work for the NPS, but what makes this story so unique is that Betty didn’t embark on this career path until late in life. When she started with the Park Service she was already 84 years old and when she retired on March 31 she was a 100-year old park ranger. That made her the oldest employee on the payrolls.
Putting History in Context
Soskin was born into a Cajun-Creole, African American family living Louisiana back in September of 1921. Six years later—following a massive flood that destoryed much of New Oreleans—her parents moved west to California, eventually settling in Oakland. That’s where Betty grew up and later worked as a clerk for a a segregated Union hall, Boilermaker’s A-36 during World War II. This gave her a firsthand look at the role that industry played in manufacturing key items for the war effort. During that time, she witnessed the contributions of women and African Americans towards the war effort. Something that would later play an important part in her job with the NPS.
After the war was over, Betty got married to a man named Mel Reid and the couple opened one of the first Black-owned record stores in the US. That store remained opened through 2019, which is an achivement in and of itself. Over the years, Soskin became involved with the community, serving on the city council for Berkley and as a field represenative for West Contra Costa County for two members of the California State Assembly: former Assemblywoman Dion Aroner and Senator Loni Hancock.
Eventually, her work led to her helping to plan and commission the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, CA. Her contributions to that site led to Betty becoming a consultant to the Park Service in 2003. Then in 2007 she became a park ranger at the age of 85, and joined the Park Service fulltime in 2011. During her tenure with the governmental agency she provided invaluable insights into life on the home front during WWII to tens of thousands of people who visited the location.
According to Betty’s NPS biography, she has keen memories of many events that took place in her lifetime. Those include not only the struggles of Black families living in America over the past century, but also the departure of Amelia Earhart on her fateful attempt to circumnavigate the globe in an airplane. She also fondly recalls a time when Oakland and San Francisco were still small and growing and the explosion of an ammunition ship in Port Chicago on July 17, 1944. An event that killed 320 people in the Bay area.
Upon her retirement, the National Park Service put out a press release announcing the occasion. In that release, Soskin was able to add further context to her llife and work at the Rosie the Riveter site.
“To be a part of helping to mark the place where that dramatic trajectory of my own life, combined with others of my generation, will influence the future by the footprints we’ve left behind has been incredible,” Soskin said, referencing the WWII Home Front National Historic Park. She went on to add, “Being a primary source in the sharing of that history – my history – and giving shape to a new national park has been exciting and fulfilling. It has proven to bring meaning to my final years.”
The National Park Service Salutes Betty
In the same press release, NPS Director Chuck Sams said, “Betty has made a profound impact on the National Park Service and the way we carry out our mission. “I am grateful for her lifelong dedication to sharing her story and wish her all the best in retirement. Her efforts remind us that we must seek out and give space for all perspectives so that we can tell a more full and inclusive history of our nation.”
To celebrate Soskin’s life and contributions, a special retirement party will be held in her honor at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park on Saturday, April 16. Details of the event can be found on the park’s website.
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