A private conversation with America’s oldest park ranger, age 95
Her name is Betty Reid Soskin.
She was born in 1921 and is 95 years young. She’s outlived two husbands, has had four children, owned a gospel music record store, was a field representative for a California State Assemblymember, and then became a National Parks Ranger at the age of 85.
After one spends just a few moments with her, there’s a realization that she has the mind and the body of somebody that’s decades younger. Did she discover the fabled fountain of youth?
I caught up with Betty at her full-time job at the Rose the Riveter / Word War 2 Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, CA recently. She gives talks and lectures on being an African American woman on the home-front during the war years and being in a Jim Crow Union Hall at a time when no woman or blacks had been allowed in the unions.
My intent was to find out what she has done all her life in terms of exercise and managing stress, diet and nutrition, and in general find some common threads of her lifestyle that now keep her so active well into her 90s, What I discovered is that there’s way more layers to Betty than I had anticipated. I was naive to think of her as some lady in her 90s who still goes to work each day and inspires people just because of her age and how healthy she still is. She is anything but such a one-dimensional character.
Betty has been fighting for social change and human rights progress all of her life, and now she weaves it all together in an educational, inspiring, story-telling and insightful way at her job several days a week for groups and school children. She’s a living history catalyst for social reform, and now with a new found fame nationwide (as she introduced the Obama’s at a White House Christmas tree lighting last year), Betty is seemingly hitting her stride at the age of 95.
Who is the one person you have met that made the biggest impression on your life? It was my Unitarian minister Aaron Gilmartin, who guided me through the civil rights chaos of the 1960s. He taught me strength.
What’s your favorite childhood memory? Playing in the creeks in Louisiana as a very young girl before we moved out here to California. Simple outdoor things like that in mother nature, those are fond memories.
If you could go back in time now as yourself and give advice to yourself at age 13, what would you say? Our country hasn’t processed the Civil War yet. We have conflicting truths. As the years go by, periods of chaos will happen, but out of these periods of chaos our democracy, which is a semi-flawed system, will re-define itself and it’s up to each new generation to make sure they work to bend that arc of the moral universe towards justice.
Why did you become a Park Ranger? I didn’t want to lose that story of the arc of history. Working here at the Rosie the Riveter / World War II National Historic Park and Museum allows me to keep that story alive. I also believe climate change and global warming are very real truths, and we must stay diligent in the fight against it and those who refuse to accept it is happening.
So Richmond, CA was very instrumental in helping us win World War II? Yes, the town went from 20,000 people to 130,000 people during the war years because of the shipyards that were here owned by Kaiser. The government took them over and produced a massive 747 ships during the war years. Black and white southerners were the main workers that moved here. It was a hustling and bustling place, full of excitement and energy. It’s really one of the main reasons we won the war because Hitler and the Fascists just couldn’t keep up with our production of ships.
Do you have any fears in your life right now? No fear at all, I’m ready to go and I am at peace with it. I still think I can do more though, I’m writing a book and filming a PBS documentary, but I accept the reality, I’m 95 years old. My mother lived until she was 101 years old, so maybe I have a couple more in me.
As a Health and Fitness Coach and Active Travel Specialist, I’m curious as to what your exercise and diet routine has been all of your life? You’re probably not going to like my answer, but I never really exercised a lot. I’ve always stayed somewhat active, didn’t drink too much, and I’ve always liked eating peanut butter and cheese! But I’ve pretty much been the same weight all of my life.
What is your greatest piece of wisdom to give the readers? Find your inner strength. You have it, it’s there. God gave it to each of us.
So after that, I gave Betty a high five, took a few pictures with her, presented her with a certificate of appreciation from the City of Los Angeles, CD2, and she was on to the next thing in her busy day as America’s oldest National Park Ranger.
Betty’s blog is http://cbreaux.blogspot.com
* Save the Date! June 27-July 6, 2017 Spain Walking and Tasting Tour on the Camino De Santiago