Returned to Lender

(Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)
Sunday, January 21, 2007


The dusty, 1,122-page book didn't attract much attention when it arrived this month at the Springbrook High School library in a nondescript FedEx package.

Then a librarian noticed the checkout date: May 14, 1964.

"How much do I owe for 'borrowing' this book for 42 years and 8 months?" Stephen N. Sampogna, a 1966 graduate of the Silver Spring high school, wrote in an attached note. "Did you miss it?"

The librarians hooted and hollered. But the return of the tome, a 1930 edition of "The Complete Sherlock Holmes," quickly presented them with a real-life whodunit: Who was this man, and what possessed him to return a four-decades-overdue library book?

Maybe he found the book during a house move. Or he was just cleaning off his shelves. Perhaps pangs of guilt drove him to do it. "Whatever the reason, it's such a feel-good story," librarian Cynthia Strong said.

But no. As Sherlock Holmes once observed: "There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact."

The Mystery of the Missing Library Book was a tough one to crack. The letter did not include Sampogna's phone number, which had been unlisted for 25 years. The address listed him in Richmond, three hours away.

Most days, he can be found listening to jazz in his modest Cape Cod-style Richmond home, which is where a visitor met him one morning last week. Sampogna smiled ruefully when told how delightful -- but perplexing -- the Silver Spring librarians found his story. Then he took a deep, wheezy breath.

"Why did this happen all these years later?" he said. "Well, back in November, I was told I had terminal cancer. So I began to get my affairs in order."

The doctors said he had only a few months left, but Sampogna said he didn't dwell on his diagnosis. "I don't even think about it," he said. "I don't think about it at all unless I have to. I'm just trying to lead a normal life every day."

Sampogna began to give away his most treasured possessions. His LP collection (including a rare early Jimmy Buffett recording) went to a brother-in-law, and he pondered where to send a receipt for a pair of headphones he sold in 1974 to the judge who listened to the Watergate tapes.

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