Jardine: Alcatraz days held charms for close-knit staff, families

For nearly the first seven years of her life, Kathe Poteet lived in the best house on the block.

Her family's home was the only one with well- manicured front and back yards and a picture window that offered a spectacular view of San Francisco's skyline.

And unlike so many of her neighbors, she is one of the few who can say she did almost seven years on "The Rock" and loved every minute of it.

Of course, about half of her "neighbors" lived in 6-by-9 rooms on a different kind of block -- a cell block -- in the infamous federal prison on Alcatraz. They were some of America's most notorious, vicious and incorrigible criminals, sent to the island because they couldn't behave themselves at other federal prisons.

Gangster Al "Scarface" Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert "Birdman" Stroud and other really bad guys were gone from The Rock before she was born. But Alvin "Creepy" Karpis -- the last Public Enemy No. 1 of the Depression-era to be captured -- was there throughout her stay and beyond.

"He did our laundry," said Poteet, who teaches science at Modesto's Tuolumne Elementary School and has lived in Oakdale with her husband, Dave, since 1990.

So what was a nice kid like Kathe Poteet doing on a place like Alcatraz?

Her father, Alfred Kaeppel, was the prison's chief clerk -- a position equivalent to the chief financial officer of a large corporation -- from 1949 until 1961. He was in charge of everything financial involving the prison, from maintenance of the facilities to procurement of supplies, including food and fresh water. He and wife Mildred lived on the island for five years before Kathe was born in a San Francisco hospital.

The prison never housed more than about 275 of the worst of the worst, who were outnumbered by about 300 or so Federal Bureau of Prisons employees and their family members. The civilians lived in housing that bordered the parade grounds, an area at the south end of the 12-acre island that had been used to stage military formations when the Army controlled Alcatraz before it became a federal prison in 1934. Consequently, Poteet said, separate societies existed on the island: The prisoners within the walls and the families and employees outside who enjoyed the freedom to come and go as they pleased.

"They had their world and we had ours," she said. Hers "was like a small town."

As she reached school age, Poteet joined the island's other resident children and took a boat to the city every day to attend classes, returning as the afternoon winds kicked up to create whitecaps on San Francisco Bay.

"From his office, my dad could see our boat coming back in the afternoon, with the bow dipping into the surf," she said. "We rode down in the hold. He'd watch the bow plow into water, and come up, and dip, and come up. And when we got there and he knew we were safe, then he could go back to work."

At home, the kids played on the parade grounds. The wives organized social events including costume parties, Christmas gatherings and such. They had potluck dinners, and everyone seemed to make a dish everyone else liked. So they compiled their favorite recipes in a cookbook, replicas of which are sold to tourists in the prison's gift shop. Mildred Kaeppel contributed two recipes.

Few pets allowed

The civilians could have visitors, but guests first had to be approved by Bureau of Prisons officials. Pets were limited to birds and fish. No dogs or cats.

"And during Fleet Week, we had front-row seats watching all the ships coming in," she said.

The island's electrical power came from a generator. In the early evenings, as the moms cooked on their electric ranges, the power drain became obvious.

"The TV's picture would just shrink," Poteet said. "Later on, when they'd finished cooking, it would come back to normal."

The only contact they had with convicts came weekly, when one of the better-behaved baddies came around to gather their sheets, towels and other basic laundry items. Each household was assigned a numbered laundry bag.

"Ours was K-834," Poteet said.

In the early 1960s, her father penciled out how much it would cost to shore up and repair the aging prison. As he worked on his report, an inmate attempted to hang a shelf in the prison's library. When he tried to secure it to the wall, a big chunk of concrete popped out, exposing the damage the elements had wreaked on the old buildings over more than five decades.

"Concrete, rebar and sea spray don't mix," Poteet said. "It was in worse shape than they thought. He took his bid times two, multiplied it and sent it up (to the Bureau of Prisons)."

Estimated at $3 million to $5 million, the cost of repairs persuaded the government to close the prison, whose operational costs were nearly three times greater than other federal prisons.

Move to shore came in '61

Her father retired in 1961 and the family moved to Terra Linda in Marin County two years before the federal prison ended its 29-year run.

"When we moved off of the island, I had to be reminded to look both ways when I crossed the street" and after living so near society's worst men "not to talk to strangers," Poteet said.

A few years later, when she was 9, the family returned to Alcatraz. By then the convicts all had been relocated. For the first time, she got to see the interior.

"I finally saw the cell blocks and the mess hall," she said. "The reader board (day's menu) was still there."

In 1969, a group of American Indians seized the island, claiming it was Indian land and planning to turn it into a cultural center. But they couldn't control the horde of vandals who went to the island and destroyed many of the buildings, including the warden's and lightkeeper's homes and the cottage where Poteet lived.

"Watching it on TV was heart-wrenching," Dave Poteet said.

Several years later, Kathe and Dave Poteet met with other Alcatraz alumni during one of their many reunions on the island.

"When we went back after the occupation, everything where our house had been was in piles," she said. "There was total silence. It got quieter and quieter. Finally, somebody said, 'Remember when ...' and somebody else said, 'Yeah,' and then it was like old times."

Despite the crumbled, decayed state of the island, she can still envision Alcatraz just as it was in her youth. Every home, every building and those who lived there.

She can still see the gardens and the flowered groundcover called Persian carpet that blanketed the island in pink each spring. She can remember the time hail piled up 6 inches deep from a freak storm, as if it happened yesterday.

"We had hail-ball fights," she said.

Rose cuttings return

Her Alcatraz experience has come full circle. When the family lived on the island, they grew a variety of rose called a Cecile Brunner. When they left, they took some cuttings to their home in Terra Linda and grew them there.

Dave and Kathe Poteet then took cuttings to their home in Oakdale, where the roses have thrived.

Last year, the Poteets offered some cuttings to a group that is restoring Alcatraz's once beautiful gardens.

"We gave them great-grandkids of those roses to take back to the island," Dave Poteet said.

"They took one and planted it back where our house used to be," Kathe Poteet said.

A bit of beauty, returned to its rightful place at what once was the best house on the block, on The Rock.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or