Betty Reid Soskin continues to define herself by her work. At 93, Soskin is the oldest park ranger with the National Park Service. She works five days a week, three of which she spends speaking at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Park.
Soskin is deliberate and pensive in her talks, often relying on a heavy pause to clarify a thought in her head. Soskin’s subject is, primarily, the life of African Americans in the Richmond shipyards during WWII. She works to dispel myths of racial equality that permeate the common narrative, and does so with an engaging tenderness and humor.
Sosking sat down with Radio Free Richmond to talk about her life in Richmond and how her experiences have shaped her life.
Radio Free Richmond (RFR): What is your day to day life like in Richmond?
Betty Reid Soskin (BRS): I’m an interpretive ranger with the National Park Service. That means that I do about three ranger programs a week in the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Center. The other two days I’m in the headquarters’ office doing program work. I only work a 5-hour day, which makes it easier for me.
I live here in Richmond, in Hilltop Village. My day to day life and work is very involved, but there is enough change that there is variety in my day.
RFR: What was the inspiration for your program?
BRS: My programs are whatever comes up to me from my own memory — from life experience. I can’t work from a script. I just wing it, every day. [laughs]
RFR: In a recent blog post you mentioned that you nearly burst into song during a recent presentation. Where did that feeling come from?
BRS: [laughs] I almost couldn’t contain myself! That happened because, as I’ve done these presentations so many times, every now and then it grows a new edge.
When I get deep into my talks, I’m on my own wave-length, and so all of the sudden in my presentation, Steven Sondheim’s “Into The Woods” rose up, and his song “Children Will Listen,” arose in me, and it was all I could do to keep from singing that. That evening when I got home I remembered that and wrote about it. It was so clearly an urge that I was not going to give into. [laughs]
RFR: What do you think it is about your stories that people find most captivating?
BRS: I have no idea. I am aware of having an impact, that’s undeniable — I can see it. But what I can attribute it to, I do not know. Except, that, maybe it’s just the power of truth.
RFR: What do you try to talk about most in your stories?
BRS: I’m putting myself into the context of that era. That was a dramatic era, and the memories feed off themselves. Simply by doing it so often, it’s beginning to develop a form of its own, but even that changes. My subject is flexible, and I try not to focus too much on one thing.
RFR: Could the urge to burst into song come from you trying to break these habits?
BRS: I have no idea, except that every day at 2 o’clock when I give my presentations, about ten minutes in, I’m in a free fall. I don’t know what’s going to come next.
RFR: Why is that?
BRS: The park here exists under the hats of the interpreters. To show that that’s true, we have a responsibility to be truthful. The history that we’re dealing with is so recent that many of us are still living. It’s not old enough to be in curricula. The historians are coming here to learn those truths. The responsibility for being as accurate as we can be is on us. So my talks are partially based on research, but mostly out of memory. I am not so much dealing with what was or what is, but more what I am and was at the time and how that felt. That’s a lot to process, and getting it right is a continual effort.
RFR: What is that free fall that you experience like?
BRS: It’s risky. Because I’m not a professional historian nor am I professional speaker, there is a chance that I won’t do it right —that I could get the history wrong. What I’m really sharing is my personal experience with the public. Fortunately I think my association with the park has happened at a time when the nation is ready for these conversations. It’s an amazing thing.
RFR: What keeps you coming back as a ranger?
BRS: I didn’t expect to be a ranger. This is not something I trained for. It’s really just something I fell into. But if I weren’t doing this, I’m not sure what I’d be doing, because it would not be in me to retire. I’m very much involved in life. I’m involved in family, involved with my neighbors, the staff here at the park. I probably will go right from the park to the cemetery. [laughs] Retirement is not something I think about. My work here is my life at this point.
In part 2, Soskin discusses how Richmond has changed overtime and how her earlier years in Berkeley connect to her life today.
Photo courtesy NPR