By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
A TV game show in 1958 featured a prison warden as one of the contestants – San Quentin Warden Fred R. Dickson.
“To Tell the Truth” was hosted by Bud Collyer, who had voiced the character of Superman for radio shows and some animated features. The show put three people on stage, all claiming to be the same person, and allowed celebrity panelists to ask questions to figure out who was telling the truth.
A July 1958 episode left the celebrities trying to figure out who was really the warden of San Quentin.
“I have been in prison work most of my adult life. I have worked in prisons in three different states. In 1956, I was voted Warden of the Year by the Wardens Association of America. I am presently warden of the California State Prison at San Quentin,” the host read from a statement signed by the real warden.
Panelists included actors Polly Bergen, Jackie Cooper and Kitty Carlisle as well as columnist Hy Gardener.
“(Contestant) number one, there is a rather famous women’s prison in California. What is the name of that prison?” asked Bergen.
“Um, Corona,” the contestant responded.
“The last answer got me confused. I voted for number two. I thought it was number one but I thought the famous women’s prison was Tehachapi but he said something else. I may be wrong,” she said, holding her marked ballot.
Carlisle was the only one who voted for number one, the correct answer.
“Well gentlemen, we thank you very much. There were three incorrect votes so at $250 each, that’s $750 in Geritol. Enjoy it as well as the apothecary jar of Geritol you’ll find on your way out,” said Collyer.
California Institution for Women at Tehachapi was relocated to Corona after a severe earthquake in 1952.
Who was Warden Fred Dickson?
In 1944, during the massive reorganization of the department, Dickson was the assistant warden of San Quentin. Prior to his work in California, Dickson spent “22 years of work in a Nebraska reformatory,” according to the Sausalito News, Oct. 12, 1944.
Dickson was appointed San Quentin’s warden on Sept. 4, 1957, replacing longtime Warden Clinton T. Duffy. The new warden continued the rehabilitative efforts of his predecessor.
“San Quentin State Prison inmates assisted the Marin Tuberculosis and Health Association with preparations for the annual Christmas Seal Campaign,” reported the newspaper on Nov. 19, 1960. “With night education officer Delbert Taylor assisting supervising clerk Joe Quinn, the inmates folded over 100,000 sheets of Christmas seals and stuffed many of the letters. ‘We are very happy to be able to assist this very worthy organization of Marin County,’ said Fred R. Dickson, Warden of San Quentin.”
Giving back to the community helped inmates make amends for their crimes, according to Dickson.
“For the third straight year, San Quentin prison inmates will donate their art and handicraft work to be sold at City of Hope’s annual Town Fair to raise funds for treatment and research in the catastrophic diseases,” reported the Sausalito News, Feb. 20, 1963. “Town Fair … is a huge sale of donated new merchandise … benefiting medical and research projects in cancer, leukemia, heart, blood and chest disorders. … Warden Fred R. Dickson, who announced the voluntary donation by prison artists and craftsmen, hailed it as strong proof of the possibility of their rehabilitation.”
In 1964, Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown named Dickson as chairman of the Adult Authority.
“Fred Dickson is one of the top names in the field of corrections in the United States. As warden of San Quentin, he became internationally known as an effective, wise and humane corrections officer. I know he will provide the leadership which will allow the authority to do its best work,” said Gov. Brown, July 22, 1964, Sausalito News.
He died seven years later.
“Fred R. Dickson … died at Ross General Hospital after a heart attack. He was 70 years old,” reported The New York Times, Feb. 9, 1971.