Frank Heaney's infectious smile and strong laugh are not the expected characteristics for someone who served overseas in two wars, was an for 27 years, and worked at one of the most infamous federal prisons in the nation.
But Heaney will be the first to admit that he is, and always has been, a joker.
"What can I say? I'm a ham," he said, speaking from his Walnut Creek home last Thursday.
That charming smile and laugh have come in handy for the 85-year-old Bay Area native, who has gained somewhat of a celebrity status for being one of the few remaining people who have memories of Alcatraz when it housed some of the nation’s most dangerous criminals.
Heaney, the youngest correctional officer in Alcatraz history, worked on the island prison for three years, from 1948 to 1951.
While a stroke in 2004 has slowed him down physically, his memory has barely faded. On request, he can rattle off dates and facts from Alcatraz’s history as a military fortress, descriptions of notorious inmates, and countless stories from his job.
After serving in the Coast Guard in World War II, Heaney came back to his hometown of Berkeley in 1946. He attended Armstrong Business College, but did not stay for long.
When he saw a flyer at the post office declaring that correctional officers were wanted at Alcatraz, his curiosity got the best of him. He passed the necessary civil service exams and, at the age of 21, he arrived at Alcatraz as the newest guard.
Heaney still remembers his first tour of the cellblock.
“The inmates that were in the cells looked at me, and I could see them looking at me, and I felt very uneasy,” Heaney said. “I thought, what the hell am I getting myself into?”
He remembers the frequent mental harassment from some prisoners—the obscene gestures, the blown kisses. It was something he learned to ignore during his three years.
He worked in varying roles throughout the prison, from the towers to the cell house to the hospital. In all of those roles, he had his share of frightening moments, the most memorable of which came early during his employment.
Heaney and two other guards had been alerted to a situation in the cell house: One of the inmates was in a crazed fury. According to Heaney, the guards were tasked with subduing the inmate, and Heaney's lieutenant ordered him to enter the cell first.
Terrified, but determined to follow orders, Heaney entered the cell. The inmate grabbed him but, much to Heaney’s relief, the lieutenant clubbed the inmate before he could attack.
“I will always remember that,” Heaney said. “I could kiss that lieutenant. I thought he did the greatest thing.”
Over the years, Heaney came to know many of the prisoners, including their backstories. Some—like Robert “Birdman” Stroud and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis—he didn’t like at all, while others—like George “Machine Gun” Kelly—were quite nice, as Heaney recalls it.
“Everybody liked Machine Gun Kelly,” he said. “He reminded me more of a bank president than a bank robber.”
One of the inmates Heaney became close to was John Paul Chase, a convicted bank robber who worked as a cobbler in one of the prison stores.
“He was just a local guy, born and raised in Sausalito,” Heaney said. “The reason I talked to him so much was because I was in charge of the shop he worked in, so I was around him all the time.”
While Alcatraz had its exciting moments, Heaney admitted that his overall experience was quite dull and lonely.
“It was boring and repetitious,” he said. “You’re in an atmosphere with doom and gloom and despair and despondency—that’s the atmosphere you’re working in.”
That lifestyle lasted until 1951 when he was called into active duty for the Korean War, which Heaney later viewed as a blessing for taking him away from Alcatraz. After serving two years in the Navy, Heaney returned to the Bay Area and, rather than go back to the island prison, he became a firefighter.
While working for the , he and his wife, Jean, an Albany native, married in 1955 and started a family.
In 1980, he retired as a firefighter, but it was at that point that he began a new career as an Alcatraz promoter.
After working three years as a park ranger at Alcatraz, Heaney became employed by the Red and White Fleet—then, the company that ran ships to and from Alcatraz—as a spokesperson.
He traveled around the country for interviews, appearing on shows like Oprah and the Today Show, and speaking at service clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis, until he retired in his mid 70s.
“I had an opportunity to travel so much and see so many things,” he said. “It was so much fun.”
Even after stopping his job as a spokesperson, Heaney continued going back to the island several times a month until his stroke eight years ago, an incident which happened while he was speaking to a group on the island.
Since his stroke, his condition has gradually worsened and he is now confined to a walker. But he still goes back to the island once a month to talk to tourists and sign copies of his book, Inside the Walls of Alcatraz. (Read excerpts from the book here.)
Yet even with his less frequent visits, the spokesman within Heaney is still alive, as the former guard lights up at the slightest opportunity to share memories of the prison.
Heaney remembers his job on The Rock as being filled with gloom, loneliness, and danger, but it was the job that has largely defined his life.
“I feel fortunate," he said. "I hated it—I didn’t like the job. But, you know, the results have been good."
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