Some people are natural leaders. They are change-makers. They are multi-talented. They are extraordinary. Those people stand out in a crowd, whether they want to or not. They just seem to shine more brightly. They draw you to them as if they have a gravitational pull all their own. The very best of these people make the most of these qualities, and live lives of incredible substance. My admiration for these people knows no bounds.
Such a person is Betty Reid Soskin. I only learned about her recently, when I read an article entitled, “Betty Reid Soskin, Oldest National Park Service Ranger, Retires At 100”.
Articles about amazing people in their elder years always catch my eye. It gives me comfort, knowing that there’s a possibility that I, too, might remain active and mentally sharp as I age. (C’mon. It could happen.) These stories also excite me, because they remind me that there will still be possibilities and potential and choices for me later in life.
I should have known about Ms. Soskin decades ago. Once again, I am faced with the constantly refreshed realization that there is a lot that I don’t know but should know. And once again it makes me wonder what else I’ve overlooked. But back to the subject at hand.
It would be a grave mistake to only admire Betty Reid Soskin for her longevity. She is so much more than her age. Like me, she’s a Unitarian Universalist, and I’m rather proud of that. She did a lot of faith-based racial healing work in that capacity. She’s also been a lifelong activist for civil and women’s rights.
As a woman of color who was born in 1921, she has experienced much of the uglier side of this nation’s history firsthand. She also was a mother of two, and ran a record store for decades. In her “spare time” she wrote and sang many songs for the civil rights movement and of course, she also plays the guitar. She has attended many a protest, including ones for the Vietnam War. She’s been given many awards, including Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 2018. Check out her amazing acceptance speech here if you want to see what an inspiring woman she is. And here’s a brief video about her life:
She was even presented with a presidential coin by Barak Obama. That presidential coin led to a fascinating ancecdote that reveals this woman’s backbone and determination. In 2016, when she would have been 95, according to Glamour, “a man broke into her home and stole her presidential coin. (When she caught him in the act, he punched her. So she reached up his “trousers,” as she calls them, and squeezed the hell out of his crown jewels. He fled, and in a few weeks, Betty healed and went back to work to great fanfare, and President Obama sent her a replacement.”
Okay. I have to say it. I love this woman.
If that weren’t enough, she also worked as a field representative for two California State Assemblywomen (both democrats, of course). That’s how she found herself in the room when the National Park Service was planning to create the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. While listening to their ideas she realized that if she didn’t speak up, this park would present nothing but a whitewashed history. So she spoke up.
That leads me to one of my newly favorite quotes:
“What gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering.” -Betty Reid Soskin
She became so involved in shaping a more equitable and realistic narrative for this park that she actually became a National Park Ranger when she was 85. She was on the job until she turned 100. That impresses the hell out of me.
Another wonderful quote of hers:
“[I] wear my uniform at all times; because when I’m on the streets or on an escalator or elevator, I am making every little girl of color aware of a career choice she may not have known she had.”
That’s exactly why I wear my hard hat and safety vest when I’m out on the sidewalk on my drawbridge. Don’t limit yourselves, girls! Follow us and then blaze an even better trail!
While reading all these articles, I clicked on a link that I assumed was another article about this amazing woman. But then, then I discovered that it wasn’t written about her, it was written by her! It turns out she’s a blogger, and has been since 2003, nearly a decade before I even fully comprehended what a blog was. Here’s a link to the last post she wrote, in August of 2019. It’s a powerfully written recount of her journey by train across the Mason Dixon Line when she was 14 years old. Sadly, it will probably be her last post, because she had a stroke a month later and hasn’t blogged since. But I look forward to reading the hundreds of posts available to us.
Of course, of course she’s a phenomenal writer. Is she bad at anything? She even published a memoir entitled “Sign My Name to Freedom” which came out in 2018. It starts with her great grandmother who was a slave, and managed to live to the age of 102. I keep reading that there is a documentary based on this book, which includes music written by her, and you can even see a preview for it here, but I’ve yet to find the documentary itself. I’d love to see it.
Around the time she was accepting her award for Glamour’s Woman of the Year for 2018, she said two things that I find quite comforting.
First, when discussing the current political climate, she said, “Democracy has been experiencing these periods of chaos since 1776. They come and go, And it’s in those periods that democracy is redefined.” When everything seems to be crumbling, we can remold and reset, she believes: “History has been written by people who got it wrong, but the people who are always trying to get it right have prevailed. If that were not true, I would still be a slave like my great-grandmother.”
If a woman who has lived through and actively participated in 100 years of history is not despairing right now, how can I? She also is very philosophical about what is most assuredly her last decade on the planet.
“I am so aware that I’m living in my final decade. I’m so aware that every single minute of every hour has to have meaning for me… I don’t have time. If I don’t get it right, I don’t have time to do it over. But it’s also true for the nation, it’s also true for us.”
I can think of no better inspiration for living in the now, not taking life for granted, and doing your very best at whatever you do. Can you?
One final delight: On her hundredth birthday, the Betty Reid Soskin Middle School was named after her in El Sobrante, California. It proudly upholds the motto, “Work Hard & Be Kind.” I love the idea that students will be learning about this woman’s incredible legacy for decades to come. Go mighty bears!
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