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Building on Experience and Sharing – Happy Birthday and Happy 100, Betty Reid Soskin

By Mary Lou Harris October 06, 2021 Lifestyle

Photo credit: Luther Bailey/National Park Service

The articles I have recently read about Betty Reid Soskin put me in mind of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day with the closing lines:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Soskin, throughout her life, seems to have understood that her historical knowledge and longevity would find a place to share untold, overlooked or forgotten histories. A woman who turned 100 years old last month, she continues to serve as a national park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter Historic Park.

Not that her profession as a park ranger has gone on for decades. In fact, she began this career at the age of 85.

This is a woman who has lived a century, a good portion of it in a segregated America. During that century, Soskin worked and served in many capacities.

By the time my own life began in 1947, Soskin had already worked as a clerk in a segregated black union during the war, and in 1946 founded and owned with her husband a record store which survived until 2019.

How Did Soskin’s Work and Community Life Develop and Change?

After her early clerical work and then founding a business, Soskin worked as a staff person for city council then as staff for a member of the state legislature.

All the while, Soskin was also active in the Civil Rights Movement. As a young woman, she traveled in the Jim Crow south and her family faced discrimination in the Bay area of California where she was raised.

Transitioning from Government to State Park Work

As a staff member of the legislature, Soskin had opportunity to be at the table as the concept of the historic park to emphasize WWII workers on the home front developed. Her longevity and knowledge of the war efforts in the Bay area of California was an opportunity to share the experiences of the wider population of the community and their part in the war effort.

Soskin was able to convey historical information to the planning commission for the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park. Having grown up in the area, she was familiar with many aspects that were either not known or not being considered. Those included the death of many black men resulting from an explosion at nearby Port Chicago.

Later in the war, black women were hired and trained to be welders. Additionally, many Japanese from the area were removed and sent to camps. This information is now included in the information presented at this national historic park.

Thanks to Soskin’s local knowledge and longevity that brought additional information and consideration to the planning group, this is now included in the historical park’s information.

Her Impact Moving Forward

I find much wisdom in Soskin’s writing and plan to track down her memoir. If you are interested in learning more about this incredible woman, there are many interviews and articles available. I found that this New York Times article includes a wonderful recap of her life.

How have you built upon the next phase(s) of your life based on earlier experiences? Has your input been valuable in how history is portrayed? Have you visited the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park? As you age, have you found ways to include and document your story and share it? And of course, what is your plan to do with your one wild and wonderful life?

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The Author

Mary Lou Harris is a proponent of active living, community volunteerism and inquisitive travel. After a post age 60 retirement from a career in public service, she expanded those interests to include ultra-trail running, hiking and extended-stay travel. She can be contacted through her website or on Twitter at @stillarunner.

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