The book of Sherlock Holmes stories just showed up one day at a Silver Spring high school library, 42 years overdue. Would it be a case befitting the detective himself?
By Amit R. Paley | Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Then it was time for his books. An obsessive reader since childhood, Sampogna decided to box up a 6-by-6-foot room in his home, lined floor to ceiling with about 400 volumes, and ship them to used-book stores. Most of his hardcovers are wrapped in dust jackets, but while packing up in December, he noticed a book that seemed naked.
"I pulled it off the shelf and said, 'Wait a minute! Why doesn't this thing have a dust jacket?' " Sampogna said. "Then I remembered."
Sampogna thinks he checked it out during his sophomore year while he was in Mr. Lerario's world history class. "Pete Lerario told me to get a history book, I thought he said 'mystery book,' " Sampogna wrote in his Dec. 18 letter to the librarians. "No wonder the test had nothing to do with [the] reading assignment!"
After he read all the stories in the book ("The Hound of the Baskervilles" was a favorite), Sampogna forgot about it. It traveled with him for four decades as he moved repeatedly throughout the Washington region, but he said he never thought about it or recalled its provenance — until last month.
It's strange that you can forget about something almost your whole life and then remember it right before you die. But Sampogna thinks it's also kind of funny — and that's why he decided to return the book. "I just wanted to see what the school's reaction would be," he said. "I thought it would be fun."
Sampogna spent most of his life having fun. He was a C student in high school (unlike his nerdy classmate Lewis Black, now a famous comedian) and after less than a year in college he dropped out. "I was more interested in reading books like 'How to Handicap the Thoroughbreds' and 'How to Play Winning Pool' than my textbooks," he said, laughing.
He spent the next 20 years selling stereos and newfangled devices called personal computers, but Sampogna said almost every night was dominated by drinking -- frequently up to eight beers a night. "I had a real Peter Pan complex until I was 42 or 43," he said.
The doctors said the alcohol caused his liver cancer. Sampogna, 58, now looks to be in his mid-70s, and he has plummeted from his normal weight of 190 pounds to 145. His kidneys are failing, which can cause his stomach to fill with 30 pounds of fluid. So he is often frighteningly gaunt and possessed of a potbelly at the same time.
But Sampogna doesn't like to dwell on his cancer or the other hardships in his life. Such as the nine-month period in 2005 when his wife, brother and one of his best friends died unexpectedly. Or the 1997 grand larceny conviction for what police said was the theft of $698 worth of computer equipment sold to Kabuto Japanese restaurant. (Sampogna, who would not comment about the incident, paid a fine but didn't serve time in prison.)
"Dwelling on the negative can lead to depression. And nothing will shorten your life more than depression," he said. "So keep a smile on your face. It's a much easier way to live, even if you have cancer."
He got a big grin from the Jan. 4 letter he received from Springbrook librarian Linda S. French. "My first thought was to forgive your $152.70 in fines (yes, we still charge only $.02/day) because of your honesty," she wrote. "But then I remembered all those students who were deprived the joys of Sherlock Holmes because you couldn't tell the difference between history and mystery and didn't remember the good citizenship habits that I'm sure Springbrook instilled in you."
She went on, however, to note that he probably paid for the lost book to graduate. Because Sampogna probably paid $3.95 for the lost book and the library only charges $2 in processing fees for returned books, French determined that the school probably owed him money.
"We'll be happy to refund about $1.95 (with your receipt) the next time you visit Springbrook," she concluded.
Although he has no receipt or recollection of paying a lost-book fine, Sampogna still hopes to visit his alma mater soon. He wants to see an exhibit in his honor that was erected two weeks ago in front of the library. His overdue Complete Sherlock Holmes rests on an Ionic column, next to a copy of the letter he sent and his 1966 yearbook photo.
Above is a giant signs that reads: "IT'S NEVER TOO LATE."
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