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Growing up in the shadow of Alcatraz

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October 22nd, 2013
Growing up in the shadow of Alcatraz
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Most reunions with friends and family don t make the news. But Tallgrass Creek resident Darlyne Sheppeard s reunion did over and over again. That s probably because Darlyne s reunion was a little different than most. The daughter of an associate warden at the notorious Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, Darlyne traveled in August back to her childhood home on the grounds of the infamous prison to reunite with former guards, residents, and even a few inmates. The high-security prison, located on a secluded island in San Francisco Bay and today managed by the National Park Service, operated from 1934 to 1963 and was home to some of the highest profile criminals of the time. Darlyne lived at the prison briefly as a baby and again as a teenager from 1949 to 1953. Though the word Alcatraz struck fear in the hearts of many, to Darlyne it was just home. It was like a very small town, says Darlyne, who was 15 when she moved to Alcatraz in 1949. There were about 30 children whose parents worked at the prison, and we became very close. In those days, Darlyne and the other children routinely caught a morning ferry that took them across the bay to school in San Francisco. After school and weekends, the children were back and forth in each other s homes but never allowed in the cell areas, which housed such famous criminals as Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman of Alcatraz. The young teen did, however, use a bobby pin to pick the padlock on the fence around the prison lighthouse a few times so she and her friends could watch television (a rare treat) in the heavily lit watchtower.

A family affair

Darlyne s son Tom Bender and three grandchildren, now 20, 18, and 10, accompanied her to the annual reunion, which is always held the second weekend in August. This year s event drew about 50 attendees, including Darlyne s cousin from Rose Hill, Calif., the son of a prison guard at Alcatraz. Darlyne s grandchildren enjoyed watching their grandmother share childhood memories such as the time she was on a date in San Francisco and missed the last boat back to Alcatraz Island, and more dramatically, the night protesting inmates at the prison set fire to their mattresses. My father said, If they don t want to sleep on them, they don t have to, remembers Darlyne. He was a strict disciplinarian, and everyone knew it. Alcatraz was not the only prison Darlyne and her family called home. Her father Nova Stucker worked at five federal penitentiaries throughout his career, including the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kans., where Darlyne was born and lived until her family moved to Alcatraz. At Leavenworth, Darlyne interacted occasionally with some of the trustee inmates as they went about their daily assigned work maintaining the property. We kids weren t supposed to ask the trustees questions, but of course we did, says Darlyne. They always answered pleasantly and politely.

In the spotlight

The media buzz about Darlyne s unusual reunion started when Jill Cline Evans, Tallgrass Creek s resident life manager, notified Mel Tansill, public affairs manager, about the upcoming gathering at Alcatraz. Darlyne and I were chatting, and she mentioned she was going to Alcatraz, said Evans. That s not something you hear every day. Tansill developed and pitched a storyline/press release to local and national media, and the widely readHuffington Postjumped on the captivating story. Other media sites and publications followed closely behind. Darlyne s story had a Ripley s Believe It or Not quality to it, says Tansill. And Darlyne is a great interview full of fun personality and information. It was an honor to share her story with the world. Locally, news about Darlyne s reunion was highlighted on the front page of theKansas City Star, inThe Olathe News, and on air with Fox4KC News. Nationally, it made the Associated Press (AP) newswire and along withThe Huffington Post, headlined on theGood Morning Americawebsite. It was even mentioned on a couple of San Francisco media sites. Darlyne took all the questions, photos, and interviews in stride. I can see why people are curious, says Darlyne, from her comfortable two-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath Millbrook-style apartment home. I grew up around prisons, and most people didn t. It was great fun to share it. Though Darlyne enjoyed seeing her former home, the real thrill came from sharing memories of her early years with her grandchildren. They saw that home is where your family is, says Darlyne. They also saw their grandmother in a whole new light.

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