by Zach Chouteau
She shook hands with President Obama, received Congressional honors and made national headlines after fending off a violent burglar in her Richmond home.
How does 95-year-old Betty Reid Soskin respond to a whirlwind of a year? By working even harder to make the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park a must-see stop for visitors to the city.
When it comes to living legends in the Richmond community, it’s hard to top the nation’s oldest full-time park ranger. After surviving a burglar’s brutal attack on June 27, she was back at work within two weeks. And she wasted no time in using the national media publicity to draw attention to Richmond’s history, as beautifully reflected at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Center on Harbour Way South.
On Tuesdays this month at 2 p.m., Soskin is holding a series of free talks during which she shares her personal insights and reflections about life on the Richmond Home Front during WWII. The series, “Of Lost Conversation,” is sure to be popular, and seating is limited, so visitors should be try their best to follow policy and arrive by 1 p.m. to receive a seating assignment.
But Soskin isn’t stopping there. Following the robbery, a fundraiser was launched to assist Soskin with her recovery. She was less concerned with herself, however, than with raising funds for a film project to benefit the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park’s Visitor Center, an urban park oasis of history that she helped plan back in 2000.
Now, another fundraiser has launched for her in-progress film, “Capture a Legacy,” which aims to preserve Soskin’s wisdom and memories that have enriched Richmond. From now through Dec. 15. Rosie the Riveter Trust is matching all contributions to the film up to $10,000. A simultaneous funding drive dubbed “Every Kid in a Park” meanwhile, aspires to bring more than 1,200 local fourth-graders to the Visitor Center in the spring of 2017.
The film project fundraiser shows just how much The Trust values Soskin as a living example of Richmond’s rich history. Soskin was here while warships were being built at record pace on Richmond’s waterfront during WWII. She worked as a file clerk in a Jim Crow segregated union auxiliary, and thus has a unique recollection of that historic era.
But even when Soskin takes a break from providing tours at Rosie the Riveter Visitors Center, the museum does a fine job of sending visitors deep into Richmond’s storied past.
Tucked away behind the massive Craneway Pavilion, the venue can be toured extensively in less than an hour, offers free entry and is a proud reminder of the city’s shipbuilding years back in the early 1940s, when many women stepped in and took on tough tasks that were previously dominated by males. These patriotic powerhouses were encapsulated in the fictitious figure of Rosie the Riveter, an iconic legend whose image is today more recognizable than ever.
“Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park’s Visitor Center is a still largely unknown treasure on the Richmond waterfront,” says Marsha Mather-Thrift, executive director of the Rosie the Riveter Trust. “It is full of interactive exhibits that capture rich and little-known history of the workers and ordinary people who took part in the largest labor mobilization in U.S. history as the country went to war. Exhibits include films, unique memorabilia, a replica of a shipyard you can explore, a rivet gun replica—kids love this one!—and a re-creation of Richmond’s Main Street in the 1940s. You can also see a variety of films in the beautiful theater, hear a presentation by well-known ranger, Betty Reid Soskin, or learn about the Japanese internment with docent Flora Ninomya.”
The attraction has plenty more to offer as well. Additional interactivity includes viewable welding goggles connected to a video screen, a ‘touchable’ Victory Ship model that prompts videos on the making of the massive vessel, and a ‘suggestion wall’ allowing visitors to share their thoughts on the venue and Richmond’s history.
The nostalgic attraction is also alive with detailed, colorful panoramas of Richmond in its 1940s heyday, with life-sized monochromatic figures strolling past city scenes from yesteryear. Meanwhile, numerous maps—both print and 3D model—give the lay of the local land during WW II, with original and reproduced pro-America wartime propaganda adding even more flavor from the past.
The gift shop is unexpectedly hip and expansive, ranging from plenty of kid-focused items like Rosie lunchboxes to sporty clothing and cool keepsakes. My four-year-old son still loves the olive-colored Junior Ranger vest we got him there during our first visit.