By Kathy Chouteau
Richmond icon Betty Reid Soskin, the nation’s oldest living national park ranger, celebrated her 100th birthday today by cutting the ribbon on a West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) middle school that has been renamed in her honor. As of this morning, Juan Crespi Middle School has officially been renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School, and along with it, a new school mascot was unveiled: the Betty bears.
Under a yellow-and-green balloon archway, a swarm of mask-wearing local dignitaries, school representatives and students, family, close friends and press, Ms. Soskin’s extraordinary life was celebrated during a ceremony hosted in the school’s outdoor lot and livestreamed online. The birthday queen made a grand entrance, escorted in her wheelchair to her seat of honor up front—her family by her side.
The Oakland Symphony Chorus ushered in the start of the ceremony with a powerful rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson.
Student MC Anaya Zenad then kicked the celebration off with birthday wishes for Ms. Soskin, followed by remarks from her school Principal Guthrie Fleischman, who echoed the song’s sentiment by sharing how the school renaming has filled their school community with hope. The renaming started with a conversation in a staff meeting a year ago about “how we could be more equitable and how we can address systemic racism and oppression within our school system,” the principal recalled.
“I’ve been in this district for almost 20 years now as a teacher and as a coach and the vice principal and the principal, and I can’t think of another time where I’ve seen a community as inspired as this community is by attaching themselves to your name,” Fleischman said to Ms. Soskin.
Dr. Chris Hurst, the WCCUSD’s new superintendent, also addressed Ms. Soskin from the podium: “We honor you and are thankful for your longevity. And we praise blessings upon you…We honor you for the life you’ve lived, the positive example you’ve set and the role model you have been to so many. We honor you for your pioneering lives from being a civil rights activist, musician, a poet [and] a business person…The oldest active ranger with the National Park Service in the United States is now joining the ranks of other pioneers, which is Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, Viola Davis and Aretha Franklin.”
Taking the podium while singing the chorus from Stevie Wonder’s song Happy Birthday—during which the Oakland Symphony Chorus added impromptu backup—State Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond called Ms. Soskin “a humble leader, a modest leader whose actions speak louder than anyone’s words.”
“In my experiences with her, she doesn’t want anybody showering anything on her. But, thank you for giving us this honor,” he said, addressing Ms. Soskin.
Also among the speakers this morning were Lisjan Elder Corrina Gould, who offered remote remarks; WCCUSD Board of Education members Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy, Jamela Smith-Folds and President Mister Phillips; Senior Field Rep. Uche Uwahemu for CA Assemblymember Buffy Wicks and Contra Costa County Sup. John Gioia. The birthday queen herself also spoke, saying she “would try to be worthy of all the kind words.”
Taking a seat of honor next to Ms. Soskin, per her request, was Richmond’s first lady Shirley Butt. “I’m so honored and so proud of her and it reflects on all of us that that she’s getting the honor that she deserves,” said Ms. Butt. “And she’s always been just quietly doing what she does: she’s been serving.”
Another standout moment during the ceremony were a group of students with a banner they created who offered birthday gifts for Ms. Soskin—one from each of the school’s homerooms. Among them were a stuffed Betty bear, a T-shirt with the name of the school named for her, flowers and personal cards from the students.
Toward the ceremony’s end, Ms. Soskin cut a ribbon spanning the balloon archway, and nearby with great fanfare, the school’s new sign was unveiled: a beautiful wooden sign crafted in the school’s Fab Lab for all the world to see: Betty Reid Soskin Middle School. Soon after, a tiered cake appeared and was presented on a decorated table for Ms. Soskin. Atop it was a figure bearing her likeness, in her all-familiar ranger hat and uniform.
Later, the Standard caught up with Ms. Soskin and got her take on her special honor.
“I can’t imagine this would have happened when I was coming up today,” she said. “And we turned the corner and I saw all these people and balloons and flowers and I just couldn’t imagine that this was for me. But that feels so good, because I just had no idea. It just means that much,” she said.