Furloughed park ranger, 92, reminds us to heed history's lessons

(CBS NEWS) RICHMOND, Calif. -- The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park can't compete for beauty with other national parks closed by the government shutdown. It's an old shipyard in Northern California.

In the 1940s, thousands of workers -- many of them women -- came together here to build the supply ships that helped win the Second World War. They completed one ship in just over four days.

Betty Reid Soskin
Betty Reid Soskin, 92, is the oldest full-time ranger in the National Park Service. She has been furloughed due to the government shutdown. CBS News

Park rangers like Betty Reid Soskin usually tell visitors the story of the greatest mobilization of workers in U.S. history -- but right now they can't go to work.

Soskin, who at 92 is the oldest full-time ranger in the National Park Service, has been furloughed.

"While I'm here, I want to do my work," she said.

The Rosie the Riveter park is all about work and working together. The women and men who built the ships came to California largely from the segregated South.

Riveters World War II
Women and men from the South worked as riveters during World War II. CBS News

Many of the workers hailed from "Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas -- a work crew of 98,000 black and white Southerners who wouldn't be sharing drinking fountains for another 20 years back in their places of origin," Soskin said.

"Without the benefit of focus groups or diversity training -- they had to do it cold turkey," she said.

That history is very personal for Soskin. She knew her great-grandmother, who was born into slavery in Louisiana and lived to be 102. Soskin's first job was in a segregated union hall. She has seen the country go through conflict and crisis.

Soskin said she's able to be patient with the workings of democracy "because I've seen so much change."

"We wax and wane and we go in the wrong direction," she said. "And one of our freedoms is to be in error and to make mistakes."

Soskin says she's learned a lot in 92 years of living. "The only problem is that you feel like you're the only grownup in the room after a while," she laughed.

And as the government shutdown drags on, "we could use a lot more grownups," she said.

It is said that those who forget history are doomed to forget it. But the history of national unity that Ranger Soskin teaches may be worth repeating as well as remembering.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.