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Sophie Returns to Campus for 2015 Event
Photo by Kelly Neal
Gene Sweeney Jr./Courtesy The Baltimore Sun
CHESTERTOWN, MD—After four years on the road, the event revealing the winner of the world’s largest undergraduate literary prize is coming back home to Chestertown. Washington College has announced that the winner of the 2015 prize, which is valued at $62,900, will be named at a reading and reception on campus May 15 as part of Commencement weekend.
The Sophie Kerr Prize was created through a bequest of its namesake, 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. 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.” (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.) 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; it peaked at $68,814 in 2009.
The College caused a stir in 2010 when it totally re-envisioned the Sophie Kerr Prize announcement. For 43 years, the winner had been named along with dozens of other academic and service award winners during Commencement. It was a feature that created great excitement and drew media attention to the winner but dampened the joy of graduation day for the non-winners and their friends and families. As English professor Richard Gillin observed at the time, “If you have 30 students who applied, one will be ecstatic when the winner is announced, but the other 29 are going to leave the last day of college feeling pretty miserable.”
At the request of then-president Mitchell B. Reiss, the Sophie Kerr Committee agreed to rethink the entire process of how the winner was named. To start, the Committee separated the announcement from Commencement and for the first time, in order to recognize the work of other exceptional writers, named a small group of finalists in addition to the one winner. “In the past, one student walked away with a check for more than $60,000, and the one who came in second would never know,” says English Department chair Kathryn Moncrief.
The 2011 and 2012 announcements were made at venues in New York City, with world-renowned novelist Colum McCann offering remarks and five finalists reading from their portfolios. For 2013 and 2014, the Sophie Kerr Committee moved the event to Baltimore, a close-by destination that made it easier for more alumni, students and family members to attend. There, in the historic Enoch Pratt Free Library, five finalists and their audience heard from Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda (2013) and acclaimed poet Mary Jo Salter (2014).
In explaining the move back to Chestertown, Moncrief, who chairs the Sophie Kerr Committee, says it was largely a response to students, faculty, staff, and community members who wanted to be part of the excitement through more than just a streamed videocast. “By scheduling it for the evening before Commencement, we make it much easier for families and friends to attend and support the finalists,” she says.
“We’ve always looked at this as an evolving process,” she adds. “Once we broke the announcement away from Commencement and added finalists and a public reading to the mix, we were able to experiment to find the best possible combination of place and time.”
The 2015 Sophie Kerr Prize Announcement, which will be open to the public, is scheduled for Friday, May 15, at 7:00 p.m. in the Gibson Center for the Arts on the Washington College campus. This year’s distinguished guest speaker has not yet been confirmed and will be announced at a later date. As specified in Sophie Kerr’s will, the winner will still receive his or her prize check the next day, May 16, during Commencement.