Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park has been doing brisk business thanks to one of its employee’s international exposure during the 16-day shutdown of the federal government.
Visitors are coming to see Betty Reid Soskin, the 92-year-old park ranger that has become an international celebrity. During the federal shutdown, Soskin became the face for thousands of frustrated, furloughed workers, as reporters from around the world sought out her phone number, Facebook page and occasionally showed up at her front door.
And when the shutdown was over and the visitor’s center reopened, people started showing up, some who say that they didn’t know Rosie the Riveter existed until last month.
Soskin, who is believed to be the oldest National Parks Service ranger, appeared on NBC Evening News, the Arsenio Hall Show and CNN’s 360 with Anderson Cooper. Countless newspapers and radio stations also picked up the story.
“I’m grateful that the park, for which I work, is getting this incredible publicity,” she said recently while taking a break from her ranger duties.“You can’t pay for that, it’s amazing.”
History comes natural for Soskin, and she enjoys sharing her experiences. She’s lived through the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. And in 2009 she attended the inauguration of the country’s first black president- with a picture of her grandmother, who was a slave, tucked in her pocket.
Soskin herself worked at the Kaiser shipyards during World War II. She remembers when Richmond’s population was less than 25,000.
“There are not that many of us in this age range that has lived this history and are still viable and can serve as resources,” she said.
“I have a chance to go back and visit an era that I lived through and pick up the lessons that I didn’t learn,” she said. “That’s an incredible privilege. The work is really life-changing.”
Recognition for her work is nothing new to her family members, who are used to her being a trailblazer.
“For me it’s not a big story because it’s the story I live with everyday,” said her son David Reid. “But it’s a big story for people that don’t her. She’s put the park on the map for many that didn’t know it was available.
“She just keeps going and going.”
While she’s taken the extra attention in stride, it comes at a cost, she said. She’s used to being recognized locally in the Safeway checkout line and at Kaiser-Permanente Hospital waiting room. But now it’s extended and she can’t leave the house “without checking first to see that my socks match,” she said in a recent blog post.
When visitors come in, many mention they saw her on the local or national news. Some are asking for hugs, others request photos for a keepsake or to show to family members.
“That’s a new feeling. I don’t think ordinary people are ever ready to feel worthy of this kind of attention,” she said.
Soskin gives tours and also works in the park’s administrative offices. Twice a week she discusses her experience as a young African American woman during World War II. Her bus tour visits key sites in Richmond related to the African American home front experience.
She has proved to be a prime attraction as requests for Soskin’s bus tour have noticeably increased, officials said.
Jeanne Kortz has heard Soskin give her talk many times, and now brings friends to hear her.
“It’s so fascinating to get first-hand history and from an African American woman’s perspective,” Kortz said. “I’m always learning something new as she always talks about something different.”
And others are still taking notice. Soskin was recently invited for a telephone interview for a Dublin, Ireland talk show.
Even at 92, Soskin has says she sees no reason for slowing down.
“I have a chance to go back and visit an era that I lived through and pick up the lessons that I didn’t learn,” she said. “That’s an incredible privilege and the work is really life-changing.”
“And the opportunity to help shape a national park around that history, why would I give that up?”
She admits she has thought about the day when it’s time to call it quits.
“I decided the day I retire is the day I have to call in (to work) because I can’t find my teeth,” she said with a giggle.
“Vanity is going to take me down.”
The Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center, 1414 Harbour Way S., is open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily. Betty Reid Soskin discusses her experience as a young African American woman during World War II at 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Soskin weekly bus tour of key park sites while reflecting on African American Home Front experiences is on Wednesdays. Space is limited, call 510-232-5050 x. 0 for reservations. For more information about Rosie the Riveter, visit www.nps.gov/rori/index.htm.