Overdue book comes to $171.32, and he’s fine with it

Times staff writer

It took him nearly 47 years, but Robert Nuranen finally returned his overdue library book.

He also insisted on paying the library’s late fee -- all $171.32 of it.

A social studies teacher at Pacoima Middle School, Nuranen returned the book, “Prince of Egypt,” to his hometown library in Hancock, Mich., because he figured it was the right thing to do.

That, and he wanted to finally be rid of it. “I mean, I’ve probably had overdue library books before,” Nuranen said, “but nothing to this degree.”

The story has attracted international media attention and won Nuranen praise from school officials who hold the teacher up as a model of honesty and integrity -- if not punctuality.


“We’ve been working on this for three years, teaching the kids the pillars of character,” said Dallas Blair, assistant principal at Pacoima. “This is a prime example.”

Nuranen checked out the book on June 2, 1960, for an end-of-the-year eighth-grade report on Egypt.

Nuranen’s report got an A. The book got lost.

“My mother would clean the house a lot, and I think it got put into a drawer,” Nuranen said.

The book slid in and out of sight for the next 30 years, but it would vanish before Nuranen could take it back. “It was like the curse of King Tut,” he chuckled. “It would appear and it would disappear about every 10 years.”

Finally, about 18 years ago, Nuranen thought it was gone for good -- until recently, when he was back in Hancock to clean out the family home.

As he rummaged through the attic, Nuranen stumbled across a box. He popped open the lid, and “there it was, staring at me and saying, ‘Return me.’ ”

Which he promptly -- and finally -- did.

Sue Zubiena, the Hancock librarian, said that when Nuranen strode in and announced he would like to return a book, she pointed him to the book drop.

“He said, ‘Oh, no, you’re going to want to see this one,’ ” she recalled.

As the 14-year head of the only library in Hancock, Zubiena has seen her share of late books. But the date stamp on Nuranen’s warranted a double-take. “I said, ‘No way. Did you really check this out?’ ”

Zubiena wasn’t going to charge Nuranen a late fee, but he insisted on paying. He calculated the amount based on the penny-a-day late fee stamped inside his book. “It wasn’t precise,” he admitted. “I probably gave them a couple pennies extra.”

(The late fee at Hancock Library is now 10 cents a day, but Zubiena caps all fees at $5.)

Zubiena said she planned to use the money, at Nuranen’s request, to buy books on women of strong character in honor of his mother, who was a custodian in the Hancock school district and died in 1982.

Nuranen credited his recent membership in the Freemasons -- an organization that he said stresses integrity in small deeds -- for his actions.

But his brother David, 62, attributes them to something more home-grown. “The culture up here in Michigan, everybody pays their bills,” said David, now retired and living in Hancock. “Bert’s doing what he was raised to do. You got a bill, you pay it.”

Media have flocked to the story of the belated book. The BBC, ABC and Toronto Radio have interviewed Nuranen, and before dawn one recent morning, he was whisked away by limo to do a talk show with Fox.

The story is certainly the biggest news in recent memory to hit Hancock, a former copper-mining town of about 4,900 near Lake Superior.

“We can all relate to some things we could have done or should have done,” said John Vaara, superintendent of the Hancock Public Schools District. “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

As for “Prince of Egypt,” Zubiena hesitates to put it back on the shelves. “I’m very tempted to,” she said. “But I have a feeling that someone’s going to walk out with it.”

And how was the book? Well, Nuranen admits that despite having it all this time, he read only half of it.