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Sophie Kerr Prize event moved to Baltimore

Colleges and UniversitiesAuthorsWashington College (Maryland)LibrariesSophie Kerr Prize

After a two-year detour to New York City, the ceremony to announce the winner of the nation's most lucrative undergraduate literary award, the Sophie Kerr Prize, will be held in Baltimore this year.

The decision marks the second time in three years that Washington College officials have moved the event, which was a staple of commencement on the school's Chestertown campus for the competition's first 43 years.

The event was so successful in New York the past two years that chapters of the college's alumni association around the country put in bids to host future announcements, Washington College President Mitchell Reiss said. The chairwoman of the panel that selects the winner said the new destination is apt.

"Being in Baltimore just makes sense on so many levels," said Kathryn Moncrief, chair of the college's English department as well as the Sophie Kerr Committee. "It's such a literary city, with a rich tradition of great writers, from Poe to Mencken to today's talents — Taylor Branch, Anne Tyler, David Simon, Barry Levinson [and] Madison Smartt Bell."

Given each spring to a Washington College senior who shows outstanding literary merit, the award — worth $61,190 this year — will be presented at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library on May 14.

Reiss and the faculty decided in 2011 to choose five finalists rather than simply have one winner announced, and to hold the ceremony in Manhattan so the young writers would have an opportunity to meet leaders in the publishing field.

Over the decades, Reiss said, the drama and tension surrounding the announcement grew so intense that it began to overwhelm the pleasures of graduation.

In each of the past two years, finalists read from their submitted work, award-winning authors spoke, the event was streamed live on the Internet, and the young writers talked about their craft with New York high school students.

The formula worked so well that the move to Baltimore caught some by surprise.

Trish McGee, an editor with the Chestertown-based Kent County News, said the change has left her flabbergasted.

"I resisted the idea of the move to New York at first, but I finally got their thinking," said McGee, a 1981 graduate of the college who has covered more than 20 Kerr competitions. "They wanted to bring the [writers] close to the literary lights of Manhattan. Fine, but then to move it from the Big Apple to gritty Baltimore? I'm not sure how that will to sit with the winners."

Still, McGee said it would be more affordable for the finalists and others to make the event, and that she'd probably attend herself this year after missing the last two.

Leaders of the Baltimore alumni chapter offered the most attractive bid, Reiss said, including the financial backing from several anonymous alumni to host the event.

Pratt CEO Carla Hayden, who served four years on the college's board of visitors and governors, offered the 130-year-old central library on Cathedral Street as a venue.

"We are excited to work with area alumni to bring the Sophie Kerr excitement to Baltimore," she said. "I like the idea of showcasing young talent and sharing the impact of the prize with the public."

Michael Dirda, a Washington Post book critic, will announce the winner at the event, which is free and open to the public.

The award was established by a posthumous gift from Sophie Kerr, a prolific author who grew up in Denton, about 30 miles from the college.

Kerr wrote 23 novels and hundreds of stories during the first half of the 20th century, many about plucky heroines in search of fame and fortune. Upon her death in 1965, the author left the college $500,000.

Drawn from the earnings of that bequest, the prize is given annually to the senior whose work the committee finds most promising. Contestants may submit fiction, poetry, critical writing, screenplays and other forms of writing.

The Sophie Kerr Endowment, which also supports scholarships and a lecture series at the school, has awarded nearly $1.5 million in prize money over the years.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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