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Overdue: A library book on its way home to Sonoma County after 71 years

This column was going to be about the bag of overdue Sonoma County Library materials that has been my near-constant companion since I checked them out in March 2020. You know, right before the coronavirus shut down the world and took the library with it.

It was going to be about my guilt for not getting around to returning those items. That bag of CDs has rattled around my car for 16 months, like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart constantly reminding me that I’m a library scofflaw, personally responsible for breaking a system built on trust.

And quite recently, the letters from Sonoma County Library started arriving: Returns, after a long hiatus prompted by the virus, were back on, and I was now officially on record as a nonreturner.

Would they revoke my well-worn library card? Would buzzers sound at the door of my E Street branch?

All of this churning anxiety got me wondering if there were others like me who had way overextended our loan time during the pandemic. And now that the library branches are reopening, what were cretins like me doing to the system? So I reached out to the folks at the Sonoma County Library and confessed my sins.

You’ve had CDs out for 16 months?, they said.

You’ve got nothing on Gail Steele.

The story of a Russian ballerina

Gail Steele, who would go on to become a Hayward city councilwoman and later an 18-year Alameda County supervisor revered for her advocacy for children, grew up Gail Herr on Pond Farm in the hills high above Guerneville.

It was an artists’ colony started by her parents, Jane and Gordon Herr.

It was a working farm, a creative hub and retreat of sorts. But it was isolated for the young Gail, according to her son, Tim Steele of San Ramon. But Gail’s mother was a voracious reader and took her daughter down the muddy road to the Guerneville Regional Library regularly. It proved an escape, Tim Steele said.

“It was very isolating up there,” Tim said. “When you are a young kid, you want to hang out with others, see the broader world.”

The Sonoma County Library allowed Gail Steele to do that. When she was 13, she checked out “Dancing Star,” by Gladys Malvern. It was a biography of Anna Pavlova, a Russian prima ballerina.

She never returned it.

‘I’ll pay the fine if I need to...’

Gail Herr moved away from the artist colony, attended UC Santa Barbara and then UC Berkeley. She married and her name changed to Gail Steele. She was elected to the Hayward City Council and later the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

And she lived in her century-old house in Hayward for about 60 years, her son said. So when she died in June of last year at the age of 83, Tim Steele and his siblings had some work to do.

“My mom had many great blessings, she was and incredible person, but a neatnik she was not,” he said. “Her things accumulated.”

As did her voluminous personal library.

But Tim Steele felt compelled to go through each book. A person’s book collection can be a window into their interests, their dreams and aspirations. His mom’s collection was no different. He found treasures in German, Japanese and French. He found first editions.

And he also found the copy of “Dancing Star.”

He opened it. Inside, he found the marks of ownership: The Sonoma County Library. He also spied a due date: June 2, 1950.

Many, if not most folks, would have put that book in the donate pile and been done with it. But Tim Steele picked up the phone and dialed Sonoma County Library headquarters.

“I thought, ‘Let’s just call and leave a message,’” he said. “So I left a message of, ‘Um, I have a book, I’ll pay the fine if I need to, but it was due 70 years ago.’”

For those math nerds out there, at the latest overdue fine rate of 15 cents a day (the county library system discontinued overdue fees in 2019) those fines could have set Steele back north of $3,888.

But, after inquiry, I was promptly informed that there was a cap of $25 per item, even for those checked out in 1950.

And the folks at the library have zero interest in dinging Steele for his good deed. They are delighted. Yes, to have the book back, but more to shake hands with a guy whose family so revered the library that he’d go through the effort to return the book.

Tim Steele, who owns property in Santa Rosa, isn’t putting the thing in the mail, he plans to drive it up to Sonoma County in the next week or so.

‘Life can be funny sometimes’

In returning the book he’s honoring his mom but also what the library provided her so many decades ago. A book about dance, about the wider world — Tim Steele knows why his mom might have checked out that book as a 13-year-old.

“It was symbolic of what she could do, what awaited her beyond the enclave up there,” he said. “Getting out there and being part of the broader world was really what she longed for. That book and the library made that possible.”

It all just proves to Library Director Ann Hammond how indispensable the library is for some people.

“It’s just a feel good story that she had it for so long and it was something that was important to her,” she said. “But it is sweet to have it back.”

Tim Steele doesn’t disagree.

“I’m sure it’s not a valuable book, it’s not a tome of great knowledge, but it was something very meaningful to her growing up,” he said.

I asked Steele if his mom, as a longtime public servant, would have been chagrined that her library book spent seven decades out of circulation. Not at all, he said.

“She would love this kind of thing, she would have just adored it,” he said. “She loved the quirky fate of happenstance. Life can be funny sometimes.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

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