Former Alcatraz Resident Visits Island with Grandchildren

PHOTO: Former Resident Of Alcatraz Visits IslandPlayTom Bender
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Alcatraz Island welcomes over 1 million visitors a year, but for 79-year-old Darlyne Sheppeard, who made the trip with three of her 16 grandchildren earlier this month, the island has special meaning. She once called it home.

"In the 1920's, working in the prison system was one of the best jobs you could have," said Sheppeard, whose father served as the associate warden of the prison from 1949-1953.

"I was 15 years old when we moved to Alcatraz. I have a lot of great memories there."

Those memories don't include any run-ins with the inmates, who were kept separate from the families who lived on the island. Sheppeard says her parents tried to create a normal upbringing, although there's nothing normal about being neighbors with "Machine Gun Kelly" and the "Birdman of Alcatraz."

In the second weekend of August each year, Alcatraz holds a reunion for former guards, their families, and even some inmates who once lived on the island. Sheppeard, who lives at the Tallgrass Creek retirement community in Overland Park, Kan., her son Tom, and his three children made the trip to visit 'The Rock" on August 11.

"It was very neat because Mom told us about parts of the island that no longer exist, stories that aren't typically written, and what it was like to grow up there," said Sheppeard's son Tom Bender, who lives in Topeka, Kan.

"The trip gave my kids and I a whole new perspective on the island and the history of our family. We have a special connection to a public place that so many people visit each year."

There was the time Darlyne Sheppeard went on a date in San Francisco and was five minutes late catching the final ferry back to the island at 12:25 a.m. She was forced to wait until the next ferry departed at sunrise.

"My kids are ages 20, 18, and 10. For the older two, the trip really made an impression on them; that Grandma was a kid just like them, living on the island, doing similar things with friends," said Bender.

For Sheppeard, seeing her grandchildren interested in the history of her family was thrilling.

"They weren't even alive when it was still in operation. But, I wasn't allowed inside the prison when we lived on the island so it's fun to see the cells. The park service has done a great job," said Sheppeard.

During the reunion weekend, Sheppeard was one of a number of former residents who operated an information table for visitors to ask questions, from whether she ever left the island to which inmates she was friendly with. For the grandchildren, this was especially thrilling seeing strangers coming up to her and asking questions.

Sheppeard can no longer travel to visitors day at Alcatraz alone because she has lost most of her vision, but plans to go back next year for the 80th anniversary of when the prison opened.

"Since I went with Tom and his kids, now all my other grandchildren want to go on the next trip."