The Clark-Porter Medal for "the student whose character and personal integrity . . . have most clearly enhanced the quality of campus life" had just been awarded to Kathleen Marie Burke, and a cry of "Yea, Kate!" was heard from the summery throng of guests in their straw hats, blue blazers and long billowy dresses.
Then, in the same steady tone of voice as countless other announcements and pronouncements at today's commencement ceremonies, Dean Garry E. Clarke spoke of the Sophie Kerr Prize--for "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor"--and bestowed it on Julia D. Stricker, a summa cum laude major in English. And a 21-year-old woman with short brown hair and a sunny complexion strode forward from the ranks of becapped and begowned graduates who were sitting so as not to crush their scrolled-up diplomas. She strode forward and, to unexceptional applause, received a check for roughly $35,000--the largest known American literary prize, or so it is said on the placid green campus of Washington College.
"It's mind boggling," said the winner's father, Annapolis engineer John Stricker, as the ceremonies dispersed. "It's the second biggest in the world, next to the Nobel," said the winner's mother, Wanda. (The college makes no reference to other second-place contenders, except to rule out the MacArthur Foundation awards as not being literary prizes.)
Julia Stricker herself, who had submitted 35 poems and six college papers to the prize committee (the six full-time members of the English faculty and the college president), was decidedly modest and level-headed about her good fortune. "This is sort of a bizarre thing," she said, referring to the amount of the prize. "I really don't take it too seriously."
Stricker will use some of the prize money to pay off $10,000 in tuition loans and to buy her brother "a nice present" for his high school graduation. The rest will go into the bank, and may eventually help pay housing costs next year in Baltimore. Stricker will be a graduate student in creative writing and a teaching assistant at Johns Hopkins University starting this fall.
"Julia has always been a little bit above us, talent-wise," said her father, "and she's done pretty well developing her talent."
How did an obscure private liberal arts school on Maryland's Eastern Shore--whose main claim to fame lies in its having been, as English department chairman Nancy Tatum said, "the only college with George Washington's permission to use his name"--come to be in a position to give away $35,000 tax-free to one of its graduating seniors?
It happened when Sophie Kerr Underwood died at the age of 84 in 1965 and bequeathed to Washington College the sum of $500,000--just a portion of the money she had accumulated from a highly successful, if largely forgotten, writing career that spanned the first half of the century.
"She wrote at the same time as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner--she was writing right alongside them," said Peter D. Turchi, the 1982 prize winner now studying creative writing at the University of Arizona.
Turchi takes a guarded view of Kerr's work. "I don't think as a literary figure her work would provide the same kind of guidance as maybe her money does," he said.
Today's winner admitted she had never read anything by Kerr, although "I've intended to," she said.
Born in the Eastern Shore town of Denton, Md., in 1880, Kerr began writing in 1906 and stayed at it until the end of her life. She graduated from Hood College in Frederick, Md., in 1898. But Washington College, located near her hometown, had given her an honorary degree and she gave it her money.
When it comes to output, Kerr certainly held her own with Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner. She turned out 23 novels (including "Wife's-Eye View" and "Tigers Is Only Cats") and more than 500 short stories (for The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Harper's, Century, etc.), and was both a contributor to--and managing editor of--The Women's Home Companion.
One person who hasn't forgotten her is Doris Brooks, a graduating senior who just this year wrote her American Studies thesis on Kerr's work and submitted it (unsuccessfully) for consideration for the Sophie Kerr Prize (although, said Brooks, "My interest in Sophie Kerr was not a financial interest").
Kerr's work was "very light," she said. "It's essentially 'girl meets boy--they fall in love--they live happily ever after.' I've never read a story of hers that ended on a sad note. Every time I would pick up a story of hers, I always had a smile on my face.
"When everyone else in the '20s was caught up with change and rejecting the past," Brooks observed, "Sophie clung to it, and was very successful."
Even when people think of colleges with Washington in their names, they rarely think of Washington College. George Washington University, Washington and Lee, Washington University in St. Louis, Mary Washington--when it comes to prestige, all of them overshadow the only school that had George's permission to use his name. Washington College's new president, former White House aide and journalist Douglass Cater, has been trying to rescue the school from obscurity. Today he sought to put the Sophie Kerr Prize in perspective.
"It's a big windfall for a college graduate," he said. "I think it's a little bit like a young person having a rich aunt pass on and leave a bequest."
When he came to the job, Cater said, his first instinct was to break the prize into several smaller ones, but he found that the Kerr will was quite explicit and inviolable on that point.
However, he finds consolation in the fact that, by and large, the winners don't "blow it. They've spent their money cautiously."
At the same time, he said, "No one's become a Saul Bellow or a Katherine Anne Porter." In the fellowship of former winners, this problem is known as "Sophie's Curse"--when someone wins the prize, it is said, he never writes again.
Indeed, it is not clear that any of the Sophie winners--it's called "The Sophie"--has even published a book. But the 1970 recipient, William L. Thompson, may get a new trend started in the fall, when Tidewater Press plans to come out with a collection of his essays on the Eastern Shore. "We have one former winner who teaches in the Pennsylvania state college system, who is doing quite well," said Tatum of the English department. "We have several who have gone on to MFAs who are teaching creative writing. We have a former winner who works at Johns Hopkins publishing their alumni magazine. And one young man who won several years ago is a surgeon and used part of his winnings to put himself through medical school."
Hastily, she added: "He still writes, by the way."
The prize came to $9,000 in 1968, the first year it was given. And it has been rising in value every year since. Kerr asked that half the annual income from her bequest be given away as a student literary prize and the other half be used by the English department, which has created two scholarships and subsidized a major lecture program with the money.
Is any student writer worth $35,000?
"I wouldn't know how to tell you what any single person in the United States is worth," said Tatum.
In such a small college--700 students, no more than a dozen of whom are generally regarded as contenders in any given year--such a big sum of money might be expected to generate a certain tension as the final selection nears. But "on the whole," Tatum says, "there's been pretty good feeling among the students, for the simple reason that the average person who comes in here as a freshman is a fairly modest soul."
Nor does Tatum believe that anyone chooses to attend Washington College with the Sophie Kerr Prize expressly in view. But having said that, she corrected herself: "Turchi, maybe. I really don't think anyone else does."
Turchi's father, Peter L. Turchi, was the cause of some campus consternation last year when he disclosed that his son had been aiming for the Sophie right from the time he applied to Washington College.
His son salted away most of his $31,000 with the assistance of E.F. Hutton and Co., and, in addition, "made the great mistake of spending some of it on surgery for a kidney stone."
Meanwhile, he continues to write. He has been juggling several properties lately, including his unpublished novel "The Girls Next Door" and his screenplay "Happily Ever After." He has also tried his hand at poetry and playwriting, and "through all of those experiences, I've found out that I'm not a playwright and I'm not a poet," he said. "So I'm starting to narrow the field."
Another former winner, Claire E. Mowbray of the class of 1980, admits to having thought about the prize when she graduated from high school.
"My father told me that I ought to go to Washington College because there was this great prize for writers, and I said, 'Come on--I'll never win it,' " said Mowbray, who now works for a publisher of art education books in Massachusetts.
But at the time, she decided against going to Washington College. So she went to another school--one also named (albeit without his permission) for our first president--Washington University in St. Louis. But she found Washington University uncomfortably big, so she transferred to Washington College, and the rest is history.
Today's commencement speaker was Walter Cronkite. He gave an apocalyptic yet hopeful speech in which he summarized the perils of the modern world and charged the schools's 121 graduating seniors with the mission of solving them. "You've made it all the way through America's educational system without apparent brain damage," he told the graduates.
Stricker learned about her stunning prize only Saturday, when her creative writing teacher, Robert Day, fell into step with her while crossing the campus, and said in a low voice, "Keep walking and keep smiling." Then he whispered the news and advised her to go have a beer, and to keep the information to herself.
Which, with certain exceptions in the Stricker household in Annapolis, she did. She even kept the news from the other six main contenders--all close friends--and did such a good job of concealment that one of her own roommates was said to have still been hoping to win as the announcement was made.
Stricker had been associate editor of the Washington College Review, the campus literary magazine, and a frequent contributor. A poem of hers, "Motels," which included these lines, appeared in one recent issue:
Ah, sunlamps, heated pool!
All-U-Can-Eat at the Mug & Mallet--
Pina Coladas at the Brass Balls Salon!
Wash-n-wear neatly stacked in Samsonites,
we're ready for this world . . .
William's plastic-carded key unlocks
an orange door. This room is Sanitized,
it's Sanforized! They give us soap,
and plastic cups--even a smiling photo
of Morris Manley, Manager. He's okay, and we're
okay. I check the room
for two-way mirrors; then we read ourselves
to sleep by blue-light bedside light.