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Sophie Kerr Prize Comes Full Circle
Location: Decker Theatre, Gibson Center for the Arts
CHESTERTOWN, MD—The evolution of the Sophie Kerr Prize tradition at Washington College comes full circle on Friday evening, May 15, when the announcement of the 2015 winner returns to campus after four years in New York and Washington, and with a keynote speaker who himself won the prize 33 years ago. The event, where up to five finalists will read from their work before learning which one will receive the Prize check worth $62,900, will begin at 7:00 p.m. in Decker Theatre, Gibson Center for the Arts, with a reception to follow.
Writer and professor Peter Turchi, author of six books and co-editor of three anthologies that explore the writing craft, took home the Sophie Kerr Prize the day he graduated from Washington College in 1982. He went on to earn an MFA from the University of Arizona and to teach writing at Northwestern University, Appalachian State University, Arizona State University and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He also directed the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College for fifteen years before joining the faculty at the University of Houston, where he now teaches nonfiction and fiction. His latest book, A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, has been hailed as a “brilliant book on the writing craft.”
“It’s always a pleasure to return to Washington College, where I got not only my formal undergraduate education, but inspiration of all sorts,” says the Baltimore native, whose 1982 Prize check was for $31,000. “The benefits of the Sophie Kerr Fund — including the prize, but probably even more important the publications and programs the Fund provided — loomed large for all of us who were interested in writing. It helped to create an atmosphere that I’ve tried to reproduce, in some fashion, in every writing program I’ve been a part of since I graduated.”
Benefactor Sophie Kerr was an Eastern Shore native who built a successful career as a fiction writer and magazine editor in New York City and left the bulk of her estate to Washington College when she died in 1965. She specified that half the funds endow a prize to be awarded to the graduating senior “chosen as having the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.” Based on the investment performance of its endowment, the cash amount of the prize has grown over the years from an initial $9,000 in 1968 to a peak of $68,814 in 2009. It remains the largest undergraduate literary prize in the nation, and probably the world.
As Turchi notes, the other half of the fund supports scholarships, library books, and the Sophie Kerr Lecture Series, which brings a steady stream of nationally known writers and editors to campus.
In 2010, the College decided to separate the Sophie Kerr Prize announcement from the Commencement ceremony and to name up to four finalists along with the winner. This year’s finalists will be announced Monday evening, May 11, on the College’s Web site (www.washcoll.edu). The ultimate winner will be named at the May 15 event in Decker Theatre. Turchi will make remarks before each finalist reads from his or her writing portfolio. Then he will return to the podium to open an envelope and announce the winner. To meet the conditions set in Kerr’s will, the actual prize check will still be awarded the following day, at Commencement.
Turchi, whom The Houston Chronicle has described as “one of the country’s foremost thinkers on the art of writing,” is happy about the way the prize tradition has evolved, especially the selection of finalists, who can be recognized for their hard work and skill even if they don’t take home the check. He recalls knowing, the year he won, that many of his closest friends also were candidates, having submitted writing portfolios to the English faculty. “While it was certainly exciting to win, I remember thinking about how talented my friends were, and that we weren’t separated by much. There’s something bittersweet about that sudden, dramatic separation from one’s peers. I look forward to congratulating all of this year’s finalists, who I have no doubt are ferociously talented.”