On March 16, 1978, with Jimmy Carter in the White House, Dick Cavett on late night TV and hi-fis on sale at Hecht’s, Sarah McKee walked into the Arlington Central Library and borrowed a book.
She was 39, a single mother of three and had just become a lawyer. She lived in a three-bedroom apartment in Fairlington that already was filled with books. But she was a literary “omnivore,” and on this day her eye fell on Alvin M. Josephy’s “The Patriot Chiefs,” about great Indian leaders.
It was due back April 5.
This month — three decades, one career, five presidents, three relocations, seven grandchildren and thousands of books later — McKee happened to open “The Patriot Chiefs,” spotted the library card in the pocket and thought: “Drat.”
And so May 5 — 31 years and one month overdue — it arrived back at Arlington Library with a note of apology and a check for $25.
“To my great embarrassment,” the note said, “I recently opened this book and discovered it is yours — not mine. My apologies for my tardiness.”
A library spokesman, Peter Golkin, said it might be the longest overdue return in library memory.
As for a fine, he said, “It’s always great to get the books back, as opposed to any kind of income from fines or replacement fees.”
McKee, now 70 and retired in Amherst, Mass., said the problem was that after the passage of so much time, she thought the book was hers.
She said she has long been plagued by a poor memory, noting in a telephone interview that she once bought a book on how to have a perfect memory only to discover that she already owned the title.
As for the Arlington book, “I never would have schlepped it around all these years had I not thought it was mine,” she said.
McKee, a lifelong bibliophile and once the owner of about 4,000 books, said she had moved with her children from Ohio to Virginia to take the D.C. bar exam and become a lawyer here. She said she had just passed the exam when she borrowed the book.
She said she practiced law with the Department of Labor and the Department of Energy. After her children were “grown and flown,” she moved with her books to Woodley Park, then later back to Virginia. When she retired in 1999, she, her books and her antique carousel horse moved to Amherst, where she plays the Celtic harp professionally and is a trustee of a local library.
She said that last year she moved many of her books to her basement to have her floors worked on and was in the process of bringing the books up from the basement, dusting and reshelving them, when she made the discovery.
In the process, she opened the Josephy book, looked in the back, “and oh, my Lord, it wasn’t mine,” she recalled.
“Drat,” she thought. “I have to send it back.”
She did so, mailing it first class.
Asked about the book, she said she could not recall whether she read it, adding with a laugh:
“You know where you can borrow it.”