Spending my career in the travel and tourism industry, I’ve been fortunate to be touched by fame by many interesting people. In one instance, I was lucky to become friends with a great man who I continue to respect and admire. His name is Frank Heaney. At 21, he worked on “The Rock” as a prison guard. That made him the youngest correctional officer in Alcatraz history.
Before I discuss a few of my adventures with Frank, it’s important to know a bit about his background. From 1944-46, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II and from 1950-52 he served in the U.S. Navy on active duty during the Korean War. It was in between the Coast Guard and the Navy from 1948 – 1951 that Frank worked on the infamous island prison known as Alcatraz.
After returning from the war, Frank began a career as an Albany, California firefighter. He fought fires for 27 years before retiring in 1980. After retirement, Frank once again became associated with Alcatraz as a park ranger. It was that job that launched him into a new post retirement career as a spokesperson for Red & White Fleet (and later with Blue and Gold Fleet) which at the time ran ships to and from Alcatraz. It was during this time that I first met Frank Heaney.
As a young guy just starting out in the travel and tourism business, it was welcoming to be around Frank. He has the warmest, friendliest personality of anyone I’ve ever met and a great sense of humor. Frank always likes to joke around and more often than not has a big smile on his face. I was fortunate to spend some time over the years talking to him about his stint on “The Rock.” It was fascinating to hear him share his first-hand stories about some of Alcatraz’ more infamous prisoners. For example, Frank told me stories about meeting George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Robert “Birdman” Stroud. It was Frank who told me that the “Birdman of Alcatraz” Robert Stroud actually did not have birds in his prison cell as depicted in the Hollywood movie starring Burt Lancaster.
One afternoon on a trip to Alcatraz with a group of travel professionals, I received a mini personal tour of the island by its youngest guard ever, Frank! As we walked past the old hospital, Frank pointed out where he worked and talked about life on “The Rock.” He showed me the location of his sleeping quarters as well. My most vivid memory though is when I asked the former guard to make believe putting the cuffs on me as he would a prisoner. In fact, there is a picture of us in the Alcatraz prison yard where Frank is showing me how it’s done.
Today, Frank is 85 years old and still returns to Alcatraz from time to time to greet incoming boats and speak and/or autograph his book “Inside the Walls of Alcatraz.” All of us in the travel and tourism industry who became friends with Frank miss him dearly. Our thoughts are always with you Frank. God bless and keep smiling.