By Kathleen Richards
Healed but still bearing “bruises internally,” Betty Reid Soskin, the country’s oldest park ranger at 94, returned to work at Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park on Tuesday, two weeks after she was beaten and robbed at her condominium in Richmond, California.
“The experience took something away from me, and I’m still trying to measure that,” Soskin said, addressing a roomful of reporters, park rangers and supporters during a press conference at the national park unit. “I don’t know what that is except that something’s missing now and something that can be replaced by getting back to my routine.”
Soskin said there was never a question about whether she would return to work. In fact, she had to be convinced not to return sooner, according to Tom Leatherman, a general superintendent for the National Park Service and Soskin’s boss. “I had to put some pressure on her to not come back as soon as she did,” Leatherman said in an interview following the press conference. “She wanted to come back last week, and I just wanted her to have a little bit more time.”
Few would have blamed her for wanting to do so. On June 27, an intruder broke into Soskin’s bedroom while she was asleep in bed. According to previous news reports, the man wrestled away her cellphone and began punching her, dragging her out of her bedroom and across her apartment, where he continued assaulting her. Soskin was able to get away from her attacker by grabbing his genitals and locked herself in her bathroom, where she heated up an iron to the “linen” setting and prepared to brand him as a mark for police. Meanwhile, the attacker rifled through her belongings and escaped with a bag of coins, jewelry, hand-painted Korean fans, a computer, laptop, camera, iPad, and cellphone. Most distressing was the loss of a commemorative coin that President Obama had given her last December during a tree-lighting ceremony.
“I came to realize … that the coin had very little value actually, except to anyone but me,” she said. “But the experience of having had the president press it into my palm in secret is an experience that I treasure, and that is what was intrinsic to that coin.”
President Obama has promised to give Soskin a new coin, although she hasn’t yet received it.
In response to the attack, the Rosie the Riveter Trust established The Betty Fund, whose proceeds will go, as requested by Soskin, toward completing a documentary about her life and impact.
Soskin became a ranger just 10 years ago. She had worked as a file clerk for an all-black union auxiliary during World War II, and about 16 years ago got involved in the planning process of the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park while serving as a field representative for former California State Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock. Soskin now gives presentations three days a week at the visitor’s center, speaking about her experiences growing up in a racially segregated America, her time working as a clerk in a Jim Crow-segregated union hall (“That was a period of pain,” she said), and her path to becoming an interpretive ranger.
Richard Brabham, a 72-year-old Richmond resident, was one of the dozens of people who came to hear Soskin speak on her first day back on the job. “She’s a legendary figure in Richmond,” he said. “We wanted to be sure and see her on her first day back and welcome her back.”
Soskin said she was grateful for the outpouring of support she’s received from the community, both locally and online, and that she “hadn’t realized how strong that was, how powerful even virtual support can be.”
Although Soskin says she still has difficulty sleeping with the lights off, she said vanity — not fear — mostly was to blame for her decision to stay home for almost eight days following the attack. “I was living in dread of seeing someone showing me with a couple of black eyes on YouTube,” she said. “I was almost obsessive about not wanting to look like a victim, because I didn’t feel like a victim.”
Indeed. One of her fellow park rangers gave her a mug bearing the words, “Iron Woman” — words that can be interpreted in more ways than one.
“It was an adventure,” she told reporters about the home invasion robbery. “One that one doesn’t wish to ever have, but it’s over now.”
LEAD PHOTO: Betty Reid Soskin at Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California (photo by NPS).