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The Sophie Kerr Legacy

by William Thompson, 1970 Sophie Kerr Prize winner
From the Summer 1997 issue of the Washington College Magazine

The Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest undergraduate prize in the nation, is given annually to the graduating senior who demonstrates the greatest “ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.” Last year’s prize was worth over $53,000.

Sophie Kerr and her catSophie Kerr and her catDespite her impressive creativity—she saw 23 novels, hundreds of short stories, and a cook book published during her lifetime—nothing author Sophie Kerr ever dreamed up has had the impact on lovers of literature as a pair of dry-as-talcum paragraphs buried deep within her last will and testament.

A Surprise Benefactor

As anyone familiar with Washington College knows by now, the Eastern Shore native and New York City keeper of cats, who died in 1965 shy of her 85th birthday, designated the school a residuary beneficiary with a half-million-dollar trust fund. What caught College administrators momentarily dumbfounded a year later when they learned details of the bequest was Kerr’s special stipulation that half the annual earnings from her estate be handed over to a graduating senior who demonstrates promising writerly instincts.

That part of the will was outlined briskly in a 91-word paragraph of legalese setting the terms of the Sophie Kerr Prize, soon to be recognized as the richest undergraduate cash award in the world. The late Dr. Nicholas Newlin, who was then chairman of the English Department, noted the enormity of the task he and his senior faculty colleagues faced in choosing the first recipient of Kerr’s unusual largess. It was, he said, “a heavy, even alarming responsibility.”

Three decades and more than $630,000 in checks later, the Sophie Kerr Prize remains the most familiar and, for some people, the most puzzling aspect of the woman’s tribute to Washington College.

The Sophie Kerr Gift

Sophie KerrSophie KerrLess known but arguably having a greater effect on more people’s lives is the second condition Kerr placed on her bequest. Overshadowed by the annual spring hoopla given the Prize is what the writer-turned-benefactress wanted to be called the Gift—the other half of the income generated by her endowment. Just as dry and twice as long as its counterpart, this section of the will sets aside a like sum of money to be spent at the discretion of the Kerr Committee—the College president and the English faculty—on student scholarships, library books, literary publications, and visiting writers and scholars.

Thanks to the continued Kerr funding of campus literary events, today Washington College offers a writer-friendly atmosphere that is the rival of schools much larger in size and endowment. Currently, the Kerr endowment is valued at $2.2 million and, for the most part, its purchasing power has kept up with the rate of inflation.

Sophie Kerr Lecture Series

Since its inception, the Gift has made possible a parade of nearly 200 visiting authors, performers and scholars who otherwise might not have set foot on a small campus miles from the traditional literary circuit. Some of these individuals were famous by the time they arrived at the College. Some were ahead of their game and soon would attain literary stardom, winning Pulitzers and Nobels and writing best sellers. Some were shy, even phlegmatic. A few were boisterous and bent on challenging the students’ own proclivities for raising hell. Most were gentle and warmly receptive to young writers who yearned for and got face-to-face encounters with the literati in the classroom and, later, in the campus literary house.

All this did not happen overnight and, in fact, it has beginnings on several fronts.

Sophie Kerr Scholarships

Almost immediately, school officials set out to comply with Kerr’s wish that scholarships be set up in her name. The English Department currently awards three incoming freshmen each with $1,000. A recipient can receive the aid for four consecutive years, meaning that each year the Kerr Committee sets aside $12,000 for financial assistance. For the record, the first four students to receive Kerr scholarships were Susan Arnold, Bill Dunphy, Reed Hessler, and Susan Marie Wilson.

Sophie Kerr Prize

While 1968 found College President Daniel Z. Gibson and school administrators cautiously pondering the consequences of Kerr’s bequest and its immediate monetary value—school officials determined the first Prize to be $5,000, the $7,500 and ultimately $9,000—at least one small group saw no need to curb its optimism. Students who controlled the literary magazine Miscellany predicted the Kerr endowment would help attract a higher caliber of undergraduate writers to the College. The long-term benefits, they believed, were obvious.

With the initiation of the senior literary prize awarded annually by the Sophie Kerr Committee, one student writer told the campus newspaper, “Miscellany could within a few years become one of the finest literary publications within the country.”

Student Publications

By the fall of 1970, the Sophie Kerr Committee had awarded three of its prizes to graduating seniors, had given out a handful of scholarships, and was quickly becoming the major source of funding for student literary publications.

Miscellany ceased to exist and was succeeded by other publications, including the Washington College Review and a flurry of poetry broadsides which came out more frequently and were favored by many of the 47 students who had helped form the College Writers Union. The group, whose size marked the largest creative writing organization ever assembled at the school, was given a start-up grant of $1,750 by the Sophie Kerr Committee and another $400 by the Student Government Association.

Sophie Kerr Library

Continuing to follow Kerr’s wishes, the English Department also began dedicating a share of the estate earnings for book purchases and periodical subscriptions. In the mid-1980s, when the Kerr estate was marking its highest returns, the department set aside $10,500 a year—about 15 percent of the library’s entire budget for new books—to buy titles recommended by its faculty. The department, acknowledging its unique funding position on campus, agreed to turn over its share of the general budget fund for books to the other academic departments.

Currently, each member of the English faculty can spend up to $500 a year for new books. As much as $2,000 a year is used to subscribe to magazines and English-related academic periodicals. Of course, all publications are available for use by anyone who uses the library.

Click here to read her story Boulevardier’s Return published in the Saturday Evening Post.

A Home for Writers

Before long, student writers secured a building they would call their home away from home. Named Richmond House, the structure was a two-story former private residence on the lower end of campus. Part publications office, dormitory, and social center, the building served campus writers until it fell into disrepair and was razed some years later.

Student writers returned ‘home’ in 1985 when a large Victorian house hard by Route 213 was converted into a haven designed especially for them. The building, dubbed the O’Neill Literary House, was a gift of alumna Betty Brown Casey ‘47 and her husband Eugene B. Casey. It was not named for the famous playwright, but for Mr. Casey’s mother, Rose O’Neill Casey.

The O’Neill Literary House

The O’Neill Literary House is a center for readings and receptions and contains several garret rooms for senior writers. Two English faculty members have their offices there, as does the director of the Literary House Press at Washington College. A high-ceilinged extension was added to accommodate a collection of antique but functional handpresses operated by students under the watchful eye of master printer Mike Kaylor. While Richmond House had two resident felines (Chaucer and Odysseus), Edith Wharton, a black and white cat, allegedly manages the O’Neill Literary House.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, interest in literary exercises had begun to spread across the campus. Faculty members offered to help budding writers and, in a demonstration of how unpatronizingly candid teachers could be, one instructor’s appraisal of student work published in the literary magazine ended on this critical note: “Basically, I mean that those who contributed… are not yet finished poets and yet they are more concerned with self-expression than with study….”

At Washington College, even “not yet finished poets” find reward. Two of the student writers included in the critique went on to win the Sophie Kerr Prize, an experience dramatically in contrast with the lives of many accomplished authors who visit the campus courtesy of Sophie Kerr.

Literary Lights

Take Joseph Brodsky, for example. Brodsky found refuge in the United States in 1972 after he served 18 months of a five-year prison term in the frozen tundra of his native Soviet Union. His crime? Writing poetry without academic qualifications.

Brodsky, who died of a heart attack in 1996 at age 55, found a more appreciative audience in the United States and his international stature as poet was recognized in 1987 when he was awarded a Nobel in literature. But, like many writers before and after him, his path to fame brought him to rural Chestertown. A small but enthusiastic crowd gathered inside the College’s Norman James Theater to hear the man read, in his native tongue and unmistakable booming voice, many of the poems that would make him a cult figure.

The Sophie Kerr Lecture Series began in the spring of 1969 on a decidedly scholarly note with the appearance of Frank Kermode, then the Winterstone Professor of English at the University of Bristol. Kermode, whose books and critical essays would later earn him chairs at four English universities and a knighthood, titled his evening lecture in Hynson Lounge “How Art Survives.” Before leaving, he gave would-be writers in the crowd a bit of advice: “Redundancy,” he said, “is the sin of novelists.”

Kermode was followed in the fall by Polish drama critic Jan Kott, a respected academic whose book, Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, caught the attention of scholars trying to tmake the playwright’s works meaningful to a generation of English students demanding so-called relevancy in their curriculum.

Writing Workshops

National Book Award winner and Library of Congress Poet-in-Residence William Stafford arrived in the fall of 1970, speaking to a large audience and then spending 20-minute sessions with individual student writers. It marked the beginning of a successful practice English teacher and Literary House director Robert Day says is to coax guest writers away from the lectern and into the throng of students who turn out to see them.

“The best visitors we have here are those who’ve accomplished a lot in their lives and who are willing to give parts of themselves to the student routine,” says Day. “I count among them Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, Anthony Burgess, and Edward Albee. Some of these people are famous beyond belief. They could have come and picked up their checks, given a reading, and hung out with the faculty. But a lot of these people buy into the contract that I try to make with every writer that they spend time with the students and the students’ manuscripts as well.”

A Literary Gem

Katherine Anne Porter’s stay at the College proved that writers are greater than the sum of their publications. She talked shop with students, who found the 82-year-old novelist and short-story author to be genuine and charming. She confided that the emerald rings she wore were purchased with the money she had been paid a decade ago for movie rights to her well-known Ship of Fools.

“A friend asked me,” she said, “if, at age 72, there wasn’t something more I needed than emeralds. I told her I’d needed those emeralds since the day I was born. Holes in my shoes don’t matter if I have emeralds.”

Students aren’t the only ones who have memorable encounters with the famous writers. Bennett J. Lamond of the English Department recalls Porter’s anxiety over having discovered that she had forgotten her lipstick shortly before she was to attend a Sunday luncheon at a professor’s house. Lamond offered to drive her to a Chestertown drug store and purchase her a stick of her choice.

“Oh,” she demurred. “No man has ever bought me lipstick,” she told him. Lamond quickly replied: “I bet you say that to all the boys.” He may be the only man who ever bought lipstick for the great writer.

In his Couplets

Perhaps the most memorable non-reading performance executed by a visiting author at the College was that of James Dickey, the poet and novelist whose book Deliverance had been made into a successful movie just about the time he came to campus. Although he spent a couple days instructing students in the classroom, his scheduled poetry reading one evening in Hynson Lounge impressed a large crowd in an unexpected way.

Dickey, who had a legendary affection for imbibing alcohol, showed up for the reading deep in his cups. He had tumbled and dirtied his sport coat outside Hynson, but made his way to the lectern unperturbed and began what was supposed to be an hour of poetry recitation. After 10 minutes had passed, Dickey peeked at his wristwatch and, apparently thinking he had read for 70 minutes, closed his book and walked out of the lounge.

Later that evening, Dickey showed up at a post-reading cocktail party at a professor’s house. He was expected to engage in informal chit chat with students and faculty, but Dickey camped out by the lighted fireplace where he nuzzled an anonymous woman.

Just as abruptly as he had left Hynson Lounge, Dickey rose from his seat before the fireplace and headed toward the door. With the woman on one arm, he wobbled like a pork-fed penguin past the makeshift bar, tucked a fifth of booze under his other arm, and walked out of the door into the dark night. It was a deliverance that Dickey, who died this year at 73, still has people talking at Washington College.

Poster Voters

Student writers, by now somewhat accustomed to having the great and near-great of the literary scene visit their world, have a way of showing their appreciation for a visitor’s performance on campus. If they approve, they have the visitor’s framed poster hung right-side up on the crowded walls of the O’Neill Literary House.

If they don’t like a particular visitor…. Well, here’s what happened when playwright Israel Horovitz came to campus recently to mingle with student writers and actors. Tipped off in advance of the students’ sign of disapproval, Horovitz wrote this on his poster: “If you hang this upside down, you will get a disease.”

Horovitz, who admitted that he goes to few college campuses, should not be upset with the students’ judgement of his performance. You can read his poster without standing on your head.