Washington College today named five finalists for the $61,000 Sophie Kerr Prize, possibly the largest cash award to any college undergraduate in the nation.

It’s a literary prize, named for an American writer who made a generous gift to the college more than 40 years ago, awarded to “the graduating senior who has the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.”

So how does little Washington College have the funds to sustain largesse on this scale? It’s a highly respected but otherwise low-profile liberal arts school on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, with a good English department and a noted J.R.R. Tolkien scholar.

“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,” James Lardner wrote in a 1983 Style section piece in this paper.

Kerr attended Hood College in Frederick but directed her posthumous benevolence to Washington College, which was near her hometown, reportedly because she disliked the fact that students at Hood dissected cats.

Kerr was firm in her wish that the prize be given as a lump sum to a single worthy soul. And so, a few dozen students each year compete for a sum that probably exceeds what any of them will earn in their first year out of college, with no strings attached.

The prize apparently has yet to yield a notable published author. Maybe one lurks among this year’s finalists — this is the first time the school has named finalists, a move to build suspense and spread the plaudits beyond the winner.

They are Maggie Farrell, a drama major from Hatfield, Pa.; Lisa Jones, an anthropology major from a Maryland community called Fork; Dan McCloskey, an English major from Ellicott City; Insley Smullen, an English major from Frederick; and Joseph L.L. Yates, a bio and studio art major from Tampa.

The winner will be announced Tuesday in New York and simulcast on screens in colonial Chestertown; the change of venue, too, is tailored to build the sense of occasion.

Other colleges must have large cash prizes that exist by the whim of some long-dead donor. Know of an example? Post it in a comment.