When Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest National Park Service Ranger in the United States, lights the national Christmas tree and introduces President Obama on Thursday, the 94-year-old California woman will be carrying a special photo in her pocket.
It’s a picture of her great grandmother, who was born into slavery in 1846 and died when she was 102, teaching Soskin all about that ugly part of U.S. history. Soskin will also have at her side her own two granddaughters, who flew with her from her home in San Pablo, about 20 miles northeast of San Francisco, to watch her make history herself.
“It feels overwhelming,” Soskin said in an interview ahead of the Washington, D.C., ceremony. “I mean, absolutely, totally unthinkable.”
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Soskin received her invitation last month while working at her full-time job, giving tours at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. She said the honor was “the greatest! Unquestionably. Nothing else tops this.”
Not that Soskin hasn’t had great invitations before. In fact, when Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Soskin was a guest of now-retired U.S. Rep. George Miller to witness the first African-American president be sworn into office. The same photo was in her pocket then, too.
“So, on inauguration day, I had a picture in my pocket of my great-grandmother experiencing that with me,” Soskin said. “And now I get to bring her to this, the tree lighting ceremony that represents more than I can say … and with my grandchildren. It’s a kind of experience that covers years, and decades, and centuries.”
Soskin has had her own share of experiences.
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In 1995, Soskin was named a “Woman of the Year” by the California State Legislature. In 2005 she was named one of the nation’s 10 outstanding women, “Builders of communities and dreams,” by the National Women’s History Project.
Soskin also made headlines in 2013 when she publicly urged Congress to get its act together and end the forced federal furloughs. She said she didn’t want to waste any time sitting around at home at her age.
What Soskin most loves to do now – after having been a social activist and record store owner with her late husband in Berkeley – is teach visitors about her slice of history.
During World War II, Soskin worked as a clerk for the all-black Boilermakers A-36. In the true sense of the word, she was never a "Rosie," because that title is typically held for female wartime shipyard workers who were white.
And when she’s not leading tours, Soskin also loves to blog, a hobby she started in order to leave her family a record of her life, and spend time with her children and grandchildren. In fact, for Christmas, Soskin said she plans to be back at her small apartment, where all her relatives will “trip over each other” and have a great time.
As for what’s next, Soskin feels like she’s happy just where she is and with her accomplishments. And she knows her great grandmother would approve.
“Just being in their presence is enough for me,” Soskin said, choking up, when speaking of getting to meet the first family. “My bucket list has disappeared pretty much.”