SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- For 95-year-old Hazel Severson, the decision was straightforward. The book didn't belong to her, so she needed to return it.
"It was the library's book," she said. "I wanted to get it back to them."
So what if the book -- "Seaplane Solo," Sir Francis Chichester's autobiographical account of his 1930 solo flight across the Tasman Sea -- was 74 years overdue from the public library in Amador County, Calif.? To Severson, returning the book was the right thing to do, period.
With the help of her longtime South Land Park, Calif., neighbors, Jim and Laurie Gibson, she turned the book over to Amador County librarian Laura Einstadter on Oct. 13.
She even offered to pay an overdue fee of $2,701, or 10 cents a day, which the library refused to accept.
"I don't want people to think we'd make her pay," said Einstadter. "We were happy to have the book back. It's lovely that she and the neighbors cared enough."
When people worry that older Americans' solid sense of values is vanishing from American life along with their generation, maybe this is part of what they mean: Hazel Severson's unwavering grasp of right and wrong and her strong sense of obligation.
"This is a very typical example of what the Greatest Generation did and still does," said Eskaton Vice President Lynette Tidwell.
Top among the values that demographers widely ascribe to these older Americans are dedication, hard work, sacrifice and conforming to the rules. As Tidwell notes, members of this generation have also tended to put the public good ahead of their personal interest.
Because they had to.
"They took care of each other," she said, "because they lived through the Depression and World War II."
In contrast, San Diego State University researchers say that as the "Greatest Generation" fades away, Americans' personality traits have shifted toward self-involvement and narcissism.
It's hard to imagine Snookie and the Situation saving the world from the Nazis, after all. But perhaps that's putting matters unfairly.
"I wouldn't say people today don't know the difference between right and wrong," said Senior Center of Elk Grove President Pat Beal. "I'd say it's a matter of how they value their time."
Hazel Severson's sense of what's right landed her on "Good Day Sacramento" and made her a minor celebrity at the Merrill Gardens at Greenhaven assisted living facility, where she's lived since May 2008. People tease her she'll be on "Ellen" next.
She likes the attention, this lively, blue-eyed woman with a cap of white curls and a quick sense of humor.
Her late husband, Howard Severson, a Sacramento businessman and longtime aviator who died in 2006, checked "Seaplane Solo" out of the Amador County library in 1936.
He was 24 at the time, and he and Hazel Navlet, his Sacramento High School sweetheart, had only recently eloped to Carson City, Nev. They kept the marriage secret from their families for six months, until he could leave the used-car lot in Amador City where he was working and move to Sacramento to be with his bride.
Even the Greatest Generation had its moments of irresponsibility, when overdue books were forgotten amid the drama of young love and early marriage.
The first edition hardcover was forgotten, as well, in the passing of the years, until early 2010, when Laurie Gibson found it as she was packing up Hazel's belongings for a garage sale.
Consider the kindness of longtime neighbors: Howard Severson helped Jim Gibson, now 77, renovate his house after Gibson moved next door in the mid-1980s. Now Jim and Laurie, 79, take care of Hazel Severson's house in her absence.
"I really couldn't be without either one of them," said Severson.
And so Jim Gibson wrote to the Amador County librarian, telling her of the book's discovery and offering to pay a late fine. (The library accepted a small donation instead.)
"I just thought it was a great story," he said. "And it's a connection for Hazel with Howard."
It was also a chance to do what's right.
"I thought the library should have their book back," said Severson. "It made me feel good to do that for Howard."
(c) 2010, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
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