Anna Thumann

After spending a year and a half as a caregiver for a longtime friend, Anna Thumann, 85, was diagnosed with lung cancer only two and a half weeks after her friend’s death. It was then that she decided it was time to write her story about growing up on Alcatraz Island, a story she had wanted to share for a long time.

“It’s all in my book,” the newly published author says as she holds up a paperback copy of Alcatraz Schoolgirl: A Memoir, My Life on the Rock.

Most people wouldn’t admit to living on Alcatraz, the famous island in San Francisco Bay that housed some of America’s most famous criminals. The island became a federal penitentiary in 1934, the same year Anna and her sister Dorothy arrived from Odenton, Maryland, along with their mother to start a new life with their soon-to-be stepfather.

“I was only seven years old, and at that moment, life seemed really good,” Anna writes in her memoir. “As a kid, I loved every minute of it.”

She would live on Alcatraz until age 17, her formative years influenced by the loving and protective cocoon surrounding the families who made the small island their home. They lived next door to heinous criminals; but Anna recalls her childhood as “innocent” and oblivious to the depression gripping the country during the 1930s. Her memoir tells of playing jump rope with her sister, a schoolgirl crush on a boy who shared the island, watching the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge which she skated across on opening day, and riding barges every day to school in San Francisco.
   
“In 1939, when Treasure Island opened, I’d sit on the seawall and watch all the different colored lights,” she recalls.  “It looked like a jewelry store.”

Anna admits it was “a different world then.” Her childhood was not like that of most other children. Only a small number of families lived on Alcatraz and the group was close knit, she explains. The annual salary of prison personnel was $1,700, so money was scarce. Yet Anna speaks fondly of the decade she spent playing Chinese Checkers and getting into tangles with her friend Betty, nudging her sister to clean up her side of their shared bedroom, and hiding with her family the night of a prison break on the island. A poignant memory outlined in her book was the day of a planned football match between the families on Angel Island versus those on Alcatraz. After days of preparation for the Sunday afternoon sporting event scheduled for December 7, 1941, plans for the big day quickly disappeared when news of the early morning bombing of Pearl Harbor reached the island, heralding the United States’ entry into World War II.

Anna chose to remain in the San Francisco Bay Area after her coming of age on Alcatraz ended in 1943 and worked as a school secretary for many years. Her love of writing was grounded in her editor jobs “on the side.” She spent 23 years in human resources at Frito Lay where she hired plant and office personnel. She married and had two sons – Ron, 61, and Steve, 64. She is especially proud of her granddaughter Emily, freshman anthropology major at San Jose State University. Anna says she retired from her corporate job at age 64, but that didn’t mean she slowed down.

“In my middle 50s, I took classical Russian ballet,” she says. “In my 70s, I learned how to swim. I grew up on an island and never learned to swim. I took public speaking. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t learn.”

That eagerness to try new things has kept her active for many years, she admits, and ultimately what helped propel her to publish her memoir.

Two books are stacked on the side table next to the sofa in Anna’s tidy living room. She is reading one of the Alex Cross Series by James Patterson and Wild Horses by Dick Francis. The books are in extra large type, a feature that helps her read easier now that her eyesight is giving her trouble. She still has no problem applying perfect eye shadow and mascara, a habit that has been a part of her daily life for as long as she can remember. She is a very independent woman and she doesn’t expect her new status as a hospice patient to change that.

“You have to keep your mind active,” she advises. “I enjoy learning. I like doing things my own way.”

“I tell my kids I’m an old car,” she says. “I’m a really old, old car and the parts are starting to wear out. I’ve always done all my own cooking and cleaning, but now a volunteer helps me shop. Everyone has been wonderful. I can’t say enough about Hospice of the Valley. I enjoy my time with them. They’re happy people. Even the pharmacy, those guys that deliver to me, they are so nice. With their help, I’m getting along fine. As I need them, they offer more services.”

With the help of Hospice of the Valley’s team of doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors, hospice aides and volunteers, Anna received the care she wanted and needed at that stage of her life. Her independence was not compromised, but rather respected and embraced.

“I said to my nurse Cindy the other day that for 85 years, I have always told people that life is not a rehearsal. You have to live it while you’re here.”

“I see so many people who are continually in and out of the hospital or go to a nursing home and they are so unhappy. I just wanted to do my own thing and be by myself and make the most of my days left. And when I go, I want to be home.”

Editor’s Note: Anna Thumann died at home in summer 2012. Alcatraz Schoolgirl is available at the museum on Alcatraz Island, Amazon.com and other bookstores. A portion of the proceeds supports the Alcatraz Island Family alumni organization.

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