Richmond's celebrity ranger draws growing crowds to city's national park
By Robert Rogers
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 11/17/2013 06:20:21 PM PST | Updated: about 4 hours ago
RICHMOND -- They came to this city's national park from as far as Georgia and Germany, ages ranging from 4 to 83.
The draw was a rare Bay Area treasure, a government worker made famous by a government shutdown.
The willowy park ranger with impeccable posture strode to the front of the theater, her buoyant gait belying her 92 years. Betty Reid Soskin, in green khakis and vest, told the assemblage of awed faces at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center that she was happy to see them.
Then she delivered her first history lesson.
"Who gets remembered is always a function of who is in the room remembering," said Soskin, eyes scanning left to right.
Fresh off a whirlwind media blitz that introduced her name and face to millions, Soskin -- the oldest full-time National Park Service ranger in the United States -- has become one of the biggest draws at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historic Park.
The snowball was set in motion Oct. 5, when an Associated Press dispatch about Soskin drew notice around the globe and brought to millions the story linking gridlock in Washington, D.C., to a faithful public servant furloughed from the job she loves. Dozens more media appearances followed, and Soskin dazzled the audiences of CNN's Anderson Cooper, talk show host Arsenio Hall and others.
"My only regret is that I didn't get all this attention when I was still young and beautiful," she said.
Soskin speaks and walks with the glide of a woman one-third her age, delivering lectures with nary an "um" or stutter, all while ticking off a dizzying array of figures and stealing peeks at her cellphone.
Beginning with her return to work Oct. 16, Soskin has drawn crowds that sometimes number nearly 100 to her once sparsely attended programs on the history of the homefront during World War II, surprising even her boss, Superintendent Tom Leatherman.
"When Ken Burns released that documentary a few years ago about the national parks, it bumped up attendance to the John Muir historic park (in Martinez)," Leatherman said. "Betty's bump at the homefront park has been even bigger."
During the media blitz, she continued her prolific blogging in between network takes, where she paired light-footed charisma with deft message control. A writer gifted with verve and introspection, Soskin has filled her personal blog with hundreds of entries since 2003, the content an engaging mix of essays, photos, journal entries and, most recently, news stories and videos.
"It was a challenge," Soskin said of the media blitz, which she said put her on "the other side of the looking glass. ... I understand now that I was a human interest story that provided a diversion from an irrational situation in Washington, but I also had to communicate meaningfully without being partisan."
During the shutdown, when she was one of roughly 800,000 federal workers furloughed starting Oct. 1, she vented her frustration to anyone who would listen, chastising Congress for wasting time -- something Soskin is keenly aware of.
"I always have a sense of urgency about my life and my contributions," she said.
Councilman Tom Butt, himself a local historian, said Soskin has been key to raising the profile of the city's national park, which was founded in 2000.
"Hiring her here was a stroke of genius," he said. "There is no one quite like her that I know of, an expert who lived the history she talks about."
Soskin was born in Detroit, the great-granddaughter of a woman born into slavery. Her family members were forced to flee their native New Orleans for a stint after her father was run out of town for showing "disrespect to a white man, which was dangerous in those days," she said. She moved to Oakland with her family at age 6.
When the war broke out, Soskin was a 21-year-old clerk at a segregated union hall on Nevin Avenue in Richmond. She saw firsthand the tumult of a small, mostly white town exploding into a 24-hour industrial hub that drew more than 100,000 workers from diverse backgrounds.
Soskin has a nuanced, warts-and-all view of history, and she is quick to remind that she has "outlived her bitterness."
In the throes of war, tremendous social change was driven with brutal necessity in Richmond, she said.
"There was no time for focus groups or diversity training," she said. "Social change is an irresistible force, and Richmond was an incubator for rapid social change."
After the war, Soskin married, had children, and enjoyed stints as proprietor of a record store, a singer and composer. A longtime activist, she stacked up accolades late in life, including being honored by the California Legislature as the 1995 Woman of the Year.
Soskin became a park ranger at age 85. She works about 32 hours per week at the Rosie the Riveter center, giving lectures and answering questions from visitors. She pours it all out into her history talks, both at the visitors center and on her bus tours to the city's array of historic sites.
The greatest gift of Richmond and the greater Bay Area is its ahead-of-its-time diversity and willingness to experiment and buck convention, she says.
"A (black) man from Tennessee could go to Richmond and ride in front of the bus 10 years before Rosa Parks," she tells the crowd.
After one recent lecture, she slid to the side of the auditorium to meet with the quickly forming line of people who sought a handshake and a few words.
Bud Alexander, 83 years old with snow-white hair, ruddy cheeks and a barrel chest, bounded over and lavished Soskin with praise of her treatment of history. He told her his age, but Soskin dismissed any notion that they were peers.
"Oh, you're just a kid," she said, with a playful pat of his shoulder.
"I came to hear Betty," Alexander said moments later. "To have that age, experience and ethnic background, to not only be here at the time of this history but to see it from a point of view that has always been underappreciated, it's just amazing to hear her tell it."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.
If you go
What: Betty Reid Soskin's history lecture and video presentations at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center
When: 2 p.m. every Tuesday and Saturday. Soskin also will lead a bus tour of the city's historic sites on Wednesday.
Where: 414 Harbour Way South, Suite 3000/Oil House, Richmond
Cost: All tours and programs are free.
Details: For more information, and for schedules of other programming at the park, call 510-232-5050, ext. 0.