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Betty Reid Soskin, America's Oldest Park Ranger, Retires at 100

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An elderly woman sits holding a bouquet of flowers, as a little girl touches her face.
Betty Reid Soskin (left) with her family during a ceremony at the newly renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in El Sobrante on her 100th birthday, on Sept. 22, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The nation’s oldest active park ranger is hanging up her Smokey hat at the age of 100.

Betty Reid Soskin retired Thursday from her job as an interpretative tour guide at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, the National Park Service announced.

Soskin led tours at the site for more than 15 years, regularly drawing large crowds. She played a major role in helping to establish the park and museum, which honors the women who worked in factories during wartime.

As a guide, Soskin taught park visitors about the contributions of women and African Americans to the war effort, and about the experience of often overlooked Black home-front workers, who played a crucial role.

An elderly woman in dark glasses, a U.S. Park Service uniform and sits/leans atop a cement wall in front of a brick building, looking seriously at the camera.
National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, then 99, at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Center in Richmond, in 2017. (Courtesy Luther Bailey/National Park Service)

She also shared with visitors her experience as a Black woman during the conflict, in which she worked for the U.S. Air Force in 1942, but quit after learning that “she was employed only because her superiors believed she was white,” according to a Park Service biography.

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“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,” Soskin said in the Park Service statement. “It has proven to bring meaning to my final years.”

As the only person of color at planning meetings for the Richmond park, which opened in 2000, Soskin said she sought to underscore the deep connection between the area's World War II-era home-front historic sites that define the park, and the long history of racial segregation that also existed there.

Masked middle school students hold up large colorful signs thanking Betty Reid Soskin, as they all look to their left on a shaded cement area beside a one-story building.
Students wait to give gifts to Betty Reid Soskin during a ceremony on her 100th birthday at the newly renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in El Sobrante on Sept. 22, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"What gets remembered is a function of who's in the room doing the remembering," Soskin told NPR in 2014, recalling her involvement in hashing out plans for the historical park.

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Soskin got a temporary Park Service position at the age of 84 and became a permanent Park Service employee in 2011. She celebrated her 100th birthday last September.

“Betty has made a profound impact on the National Park Service and the way we carry out our mission,” NPS Director Chuck Sams said. “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.”

Soskin was born Betty Charbonnet in Detroit in 1921, and later moved to New Orleans to live with her Creole family. She recalled surviving the devastating Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, according to the Park Service biography.

Her family then moved to Oakland, and in 1945 she and her first husband opened Reid's Records in Berkeley, one of the first Black-owned record stores in the region.

Soskin was named California Woman of the Year in 1995.

In 2015, Soskin received a presidential coin from President Barack Obama after she lit the National Christmas Tree at the White House.

A thin, elderly woman with close-cropped, white hair and shaded glasses, lots of bracelets on one wrist, smiles and talks to someone off camera. She sits in a wheelchair, a sign on the wall behind her saying 'Betty Reid Soskin Middle School'.
Betty Reid Soskin poses for a portrait underneath a sign for the newly renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in El Sobrante on her 100th birthday, Sept. 22, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In June 2016, she was awakened in her home by a robber who punched her repeatedly in the face, dragged her out of her bedroom and beat her before making off with the coin and other items. Soskin, then 94, recovered and returned to work just weeks after the attack. The coin was replaced.

Soskin also was honored with entry into the Congressional Record. And in 2018, Glamour magazine named her woman of the year.

To mark her 100th birthday last year, the West Contra Costa Unified School District renamed Juan Crespi Middle School in El Sobrante in her honor: Betty Reid Soskin Middle School.

An elderly woman with a facemask sits behind a large birthday cake, with a crowd behind her.
A birthday cake is presented to Betty Reid Soskin during a ceremony at the newly renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in El Sobrante on her 100th birthday, on Sept. 22, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Surrounded by family members, local leaders and students, Soskin cut the red ribbon to officially mark the name change, and was showered with flowers and an ornate birthday cake.

“I don't know what one might do to justify a long life,” she said. “I think that you have pretty much got it made.”

This post includes reporting from The Associated Press and KQED's Beth LaBerge.

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