Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest full-time national park ranger in the United States, is two months shy of her 95th birthday. The National Park Service itself is only five years older than that.
For the last 10 years, Soskin has served as an interpretive ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Redmond, California, where you’d get little argument that she is the most beloved and sought-after park ranger.
But on June 27, an intruder broke into her home in Richmond, California, and punched her several times. She managed to get away and lock herself in her bathroom, where she proceeded to plug in her iron and wait for her attacker to return so she could brand him.
Instead, he escaped with some of Soskin’s prized possessions, including a commemorative coin from President Obama. But true to Soskin’s spirit and strength, she is now back to work just three weeks after the attack.
Soskin’s life in the 85 years prior to joining the National Park Service reflects a changing and growing country. Her great-grandmother was born a slave in Louisiana and lived to be 102, while her mother reached 101.
Her family’s relocation to California when Soskin was young set her on a unique path. In California in the early 1900s, women of color generally had two avenues of employment: domestic servant or teacher.
But Henry Keiser and his shipyard in Richmond gave Soskin a third option: She worked as a clerk for the Boilermakers Union A-36 at the shipyard during World War II.
While the shipyard offered an opportunity, it was still a segregated working environment. Soskin’s experience as a woman of color later filled in some holes while identifying sites for Rosie the Riveter park, helping to paint a more accurate picture of the war effort there.
As Soskin reminds us, “what gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering.” She believes parks like Rosie the Riveter are important to cultural identity and our future, because “they can help us process our collective history, even the painful parts.”
After the shipyards, Soskin went on to work in academia, as a songwriter during the Civil Rights Movement, as a community activist, and as a field representative for California Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock, which led to her work designing and ultimately working at Rosie the Riveter park.
Today she is still a small business owner, with Reid’s Records celebrating more than 70 years in business.
According to Soskin, urban parks like Rosie the Riveter help bring national parks to people who may not otherwise be able to get to remote places like Yosemite or Yellowstone. It is not lost on her that tax dollars pay for U.S. national parks, yet many of the country’s citizens cannot access them.
At the same time, more people live in urban areas today compared to a hundred years ago, so identifying and designating more of these spaces is vital.
Soskin argues that urban parks are as important as our wild spaces, because “the urban spaces combined with nature tells the American story. Our parks are our American story.”
By Sarah Chauhan for National Geographic. Read the article it its original form, with more great pictures of Betty, here.