Vietnam Veteran John V. Craig ’72 Recalls Early Life on Alcatraz and the Space Coast
John ’72 and Margaret Craig, pictured above, live in Snellville, GA, but their hearts are never far from their beloved UCF Knights. Here, the Craigs are supporting the Knights at a UCF Watch Party in Buford, GA.
By Camille Dolan ’98
Craig’s father, Victor, oversaw the dining program for the prison, which had been built to incarcerate those who were deemed too difficult to incarcerate elsewhere.
A menu from Christmas Eve 1954 shows that the inmates were fed “Roast Tom Turkey, Oyster Dressing, Snowflake Potatoes, Pumpkin Pie, and Coffee.” The warden also authorized a variety of holiday recordings to be played, and the distribution of Christmas packages.
“My father knew that one of the best ways to keep everyone happy was to keep them well-fed,” Craig says. “I also remember that he told me once that the Bird Man [aka Robert Stroud, one of Alcatraz’s most infamous inmates] had told him to remember to get him some shrimp.”
Craig graduated from Galileo High School in San Francisco in 1959 and said he didn’t think much about the significance of living on Alcatraz until later. He and the other children on the island had their routine of going to school each day, then coming home to their families. There was a recreation hall that the children used, and Craig was a pin-setter for the hall’s bowling alley. Whenever a bowler would knock down the pins, it was his job to put them back up again.
“It wasn’t a scary place,” Craig says. “We were well protected, and we had everything that we needed.”
After graduation, Craig enlisted into the Navy and served two tours in Vietnam. He worked on three different ships, two destroyers and a cruiser, where he manned the radar and served as an electronics technician.
Since John’s military service during Vietnam occurred at sea, he did not experience any of the trauma that many veterans of that era did. And he understands how many of them may not want to share those experiences.
“Some people will want to talk about it, and others will not,” Craig says. “But just let them tell you what they want to tell you. You can kind of get a feel for that, I think, for how sad or bad their experience was.”
After his discharge from the Navy, Craig moved to Cocoa Beach, where his parents had relocated. Because of his work experience in the Navy, he was snapped up by the Kennedy Space Center to work in its astronaut simulation headquarters as a technician. He also began taking classes at Brevard Junior College.
“When I met him in 1968,” says Margaret Craig, “I looked at his transcript and saw he had over 100 credit hours! I told him he wasn’t far from a bachelor’s degree, but he couldn’t get it from here. He would have to go to (what was then) Florida Technological University.”
“I remember four buildings and no parking,” John Craig says with a laugh. “When I graduated in 1972, we had to have our ceremony at the Civic Center in Orlando.”
Craig recalls that it was difficult to go to school during the day and to come back to Brevard County and work the second shift. His journey, however, served as an inspiration to his daughter, Michele.
When John and Margaret Craig told Michele that they would be speaking to someone from UCF about their story, she told them how proud she was of her father.
“Michele, who works at Montgomery College in Maryland, told me she was inspired to go back to college later in life because of the stories she had heard from her dad,” Margaret Craig says. The Craigs also have a son, David, who is a computer software developer for JP Morgan Chase, and four granddaughters.
Margaret Craig received her teaching certificate from Carson Newman College in Tennessee and had moved to Florida for what were then better opportunities for new teachers. Her first gig was at Saturn Elementary School in Cocoa.
After graduation, the Craigs moved to New Jersey where John began his career in technology; he was good mechanically, and especially gifted with repairing the new and emerging medical equipment. His skills were so in demand that he often traveled throughout a multi-state region to check on his clients.
And when they moved to the Atlanta area, their current home, the Craigs figured they lived close enough to UCF so that they could attend some football games.
“Right now, we’ve been around seven times,” Margaret Craig says. “The last time we were there, we drove all the way around and couldn’t believe how big the place had gotten!”
One of the Craigs’ favorite activities in Snellville is to go to the local watch parties whenever the Knights are playing.
“We have fun, and we see all these people who graduated in 1999,” John Craig says. “And they treat us like royalty.”
He is joking, of course. Margaret Craig says her husband has always been low-key about himself and he never brags, despite having had a wonderful career.
“He is very modest, but I’m not,” Margaret Craig laughs. “I do sometimes have to remind him how lucky he was to have met me down in Brevard County.”
“Really lucky,” John Craig says.
The Craigs – who have been married so long they sometimes finish each other’s sentences – have advice for those who might just be starting off on their educational journey.
“Just don’t give up. Just keep going after whatever you want. Know that UCF is giving you a wonderful opportunity to do well in life and to keep going. You might have a downtrend every once in a while, but then your life will pick back up again. Just keep Charging On!”