Writer's Profile: Margery McAleer
● By Claudia Mosby
[By the] LetterDecember 2014
By Claudia Mosby
San Quentin State Prison is not a place one would imagine a young girl growing up happily. But then again, author Margery McAleer was not like most young girls.
When her father, Lt. Dan Coughlin, founded the innovative San Quentin Prison
Athletic System, McAleer was living with her family on the prison campus. In 2009, at age
85, she published Doing Time in “Q”, a part autobiographical/part fictional story of her
father’s dream to take prisoners out of their cellblocks and onto the field for self-betterment.
Enjoy: What are your memories of growing up in San Quentin?
McAleer: Wonderful! Isn’t that strange? When we were there, our cook and our gardener were prisoners but I thought of them as relatives. This was the ‘30s and early ‘40s when a lot of men were sent to prison for stealing during The (Great) Depression. A lot of them were family men, so they loved us kids.
Enjoy: What prompted your father to begin this program?
McAleer: His favorite sport was boxing and he always remembered the bonding. He thought it would help with the racial conflicts and it was his way of getting more humane treatment for the prisoners. Every weekend he would drive over to San Francisco—which was not a short trip then; you had to take a boat—where he went to a baseball game or the boxing matches in the evening to try and get equipment contributions. This went on for years.
He met Joe DiMaggio at one of the games in San Francisco and later (Philadelphia Athletics Manager) Connie Mack. Both took an interest in his program and offered support.
Bringing sports into a prison was unheard of at that time and the governor spoke against it many times, saying, “We can’t afford it.” At first the idea was a shock, but the publicity helped and it caught on.
Enjoy: There is an interesting story about naming the prison’s athletic field…
McAleer: They wanted to name it Duffy Field, after a famous warden at the time. The prisoners were so outraged they went on strike, banging their tin plates on the bars. The next day, it was announced that it would be named Coughlin Field.
They created a bronze bust of my father, but when I was there in 2004, the bust was gone and there was no history of the field or program mentioned in the museum. They have also changed the name to Field of Dreams.
Enjoy: Besides honoring your father’s contributions, you had another goal in writing the book.
McAleer: At any time, someone can come along with an idea that makes a difference. My father did something that at one time was considered impossible. He took one step but there are more steps to be taken.
Enjoy: Have you always been a writer?
McAleer: Yes. I love to write. I got accepted to UC Berkeley in 1942, but my parents didn’t have enough money for the tuition. The war broke out and instead I got a job. After moving to Northern California and living in the wilderness around Mt. Shasta, I started working on Doing Time in Q.
Enjoy: You have a new memoir in progress?
McAleer: Yes, it’s called San Quentin Quail: A Girl’s Life in Prison. I have many fun memories, like getting locked out of the house and the gardener opening the door with one of my mother’s hairpins.
Enjoy: Do you have any advice for budding writers?
McAleer: Sit amidst other writers. It’s exciting and you meet interesting people. I miss the writers’ conferences. In 2010, when I was in New York City and Richard Patterson spoke, I almost mistook his limo for mine.
Doing Time in “Q” is available at Enjoy The Store