Book lover’s legacy benefits libraries

Even as he slowly amassed a fortune of nearly $4 million, through owning stock in Georgia-grown companies such as Coca-Cola, and penny-pinching grocery bills, Sidney Samuel Thomas loved splurging on books and the UGA Libraries.

Thomas, who received his bachelor’s degree in 1946 and master’s degree in 1950 from UGA, devoured three to four books a week, even in the days before he died at age 89. Armed with release dates, the voracious reader-and retired librarian-visited Barnes & Noble weekly to buy the newest biographies, novels and other books.

“He always had a book. He was consumed until he got finished with the book,” says Thomas’ cousin, Bill McGraw.

When Thomas died of congestive heart failure in May 2012 he left his fortune, believed to be worth between $3 million and $4 million once the estate is fully settled, to the UGA Libraries. Thomas designated the money be used to buy books and help pay for construction of the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries.

Thomas’ love of books and investing began at an early age. He put money into stocks as a 10-year-old in the 1930s. Thomas, who served in World War II, referenced buying more stock in letters to his mother.

He was a quiet and private man, and few people likely knew of his amassed wealth.

“He was this little old man that nobody knew. He was not flashy,” McGraw says.

But he spent money on the things he held dear. On what he once called a “paltry” salary, he built a book collection that included signed first editions and early review copies of books.

Some of his book purchases became stories in themselves. Thomas acquired his most prized literary possession, a first edition of the racy novel “Lolita,” while working as a civilian librarian during the 1950s at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He traveled to Paris for the book and later told McGraw that entering the bookstore felt like going into a “house of ill repute.” When he asked for the book, the shopkeeper looked around, then pulled it out from underneath the counter. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel cost $6, but was valued at $10,000 when Thomas, who never married and did not have children, donated it to the UGA Libraries three years ago.

The book lover practiced Ebenezer Scrooge-like frugality. He scrutinized grocery receipts before leaving the store to see if the cashier made any errors. “You would always factor in an extra 10 minutes because he was going to sit there and go over this list,” McGraw recalls. “You know what? You’d be surprised. About every third time, he would find something and get it free.”

When the air conditioning on Thomas’ 1986 Honda broke a year after he got the car, he didn’t pay to fix it and endured the heat for 20 years. “He’d come home and be soaking wet,” McGraw says.

McGraw finally told him he had to buy a new car. Thomas spent $16,000 on a new 2006 Toyota with air conditioning, but wasn’t willing to pay for power windows. 

“If he got a bill and there was an extra $2 charge, he would spend hours trying to find out that $2 charge. I guess that’s how you get $4 million, if you pinch every penny,” McGraw says.

Thomas moved back to Athens in 1985 after retiring as an acquisitions librarian at Georgia State University, returning to the home his family bought in 1936. The kitchen, with black-and-white tile countertops, was left unchanged since 1930. Thomas made small investments in the two-bedroom brick home, including turning a screened porch into a sunroom where he often read.

Thomas weekly bagged up books and donated them to the UGA Libraries, just 1 1/2 miles from his tree-lined street in the Five Points neighborhood. In March, nearly 100 people lined up to attend an estate sale that included furniture from the late 1800s and early 1900s, military uniforms and needlepoint pieces.

Sales of items, ranging from $6 to $800, raised another $20,000, McGraw says. Some of Thomas’ books were among the 2,000 hardbacks and paperbacks the UGA Libraries sold in his shady backyard over the weekend. As kids, college students and adults filled boxes and plastic bags with books, some took home with them a piece of Thomas’ legacy at UGA.

The legacy also includes the Sidney Samuel Thomas Biography Collection and the Sidney Samuel Thomas Modern Literature Collection, both created by donations from his personal library. The rotunda in the special collections libraries and the reading room in the Zell B. Miller Learning Center are named for him in honor of his gifts to UGA.

In a piece that was printed in the Libraries newsletter, Beyond the Pages, in spring 2012, Thomas wrote: “Two hundred years from now a student may wander into the Rotunda of the Russell Special Collections Library and, seeing my name grandly sweeping up the curving staircase to the second floor, ask ‘Who was this Sidney Samuel Thomas?’ If he reads the plaque he will discover that he was a man who loved books and the University of Georgia and did something about it.”