A passing conversation with a chemistry teacher at Manchester Valley High School set Catalina Righter on a path that led Friday to her winning one of writing's most lucrative prizes.
The 22-year-old Righter, who grew up in northeastern Carroll County, was awarded Washington College's Sophie Kerr Prize — and the $65,768 in winnings that go with it to foster a future in literature. The Manchester woman thanked her high school teacher, a graduate of the Eastern Shore college, for encouraging her to consider attending the college to develop her writing and compete for the prize.
"I was absolutely shocked, which I am sure you could see on my face," Righter, a senior, said Friday, minutes after being named the winner.
Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the award, the nation's largest undergraduate writing prize.
Righter said she had not fully considered how she would spend the money, not wanting to "jinx" herself, but said the cash would give her a foundation as she looks to pursue a career in journalism. The prize doesn't put any restrictions on how the recipient can spend the money. Many use it to cover living expenses or graduate education costs. One winner bought a motorcycle and traveled across the country.
Righter was chosen from a field of five finalists for the prize named for Sophie Kerr, an Eastern Shore native, successful writer and a collector of cats with names such as Useless, Worthless and Thomas Hardy.
A graduate of Hood College in Frederick, Kerr gave Washington College $510,878 in 1965 to establish the prize. She believed the college shared her values, with its emphasis on writing, connection to the land, commitment to intellectual discourse and respect for all living creatures — going as far as asking the president of the college if the institution supported the vivisection of cats. (He said it did not.)
Kerr, who died at 85, was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Gazette and managing editor of Woman's Home Companion. She published 23 novels, 500 short stories, a cookbook and a Broadway play, "Big Hearted Herbert."
The value of her endowment is now nearly $2.5 million. Half of the annual proceeds goes toward the prize and the other half goes toward student scholarships, visiting writers and scholars, and the purchase of library books.
Past winners include Christine Lincoln, author of "Sap Rising" who was featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and Kevin O'Keefe, an executive at an international public relations firm and former chairman of the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Righter, an English major and creative writing minor, submitted a portfolio to the contest that "spans genres from wry journalistic essay to tightly woven, searing poetry," according to the judges.
Poet Elizabeth Spires announced the award at an event Friday night on the campus of about 1,450 undergraduates. Her advice to the fledgling writers: Establish routines, such as writing at the same time every day, and to survive writer's block, go for a walk or practice tai chi.
"Catalina has an eye for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary," said James Hall, director of the college's Rose O'Neill Literary House. "She brings to bear on her poems a reporter's objectivity and a journalist's sense of what makes a story both memorable and beautiful."
Kathryn Moncrief, chairwoman of the college's English department, said Righter's writing "evinces her remarkable ability to capture both the outrageous and the mundane, and to find surprising humor and beauty in both." Moncrief has been involved with the prize for 18 years.
Moncrief said the prize entries over those 18 years have been of a consistently high quality across a number of disciplines, including fiction, poetry and journalism.
"The simple answer is, we're looking for what Sophie Kerr designated in her will: potential for future literary endeavor," Moncrief said. "She had a vision for really growing young writers."
Righter served as editor-in-chief of the college's student newspaper, The Elm, and is a member of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society. She said a general theme to her selections was a search for identity.
Her entries included "Route 213 Poet," an ode to the road that travelers take in and out of Chestertown, home to Washington College: "Day in, day in, driving past signs for beer so cold it'll hurt your teeth. The peeling, swayback porches and the men who yell as you pass.
"It takes a patient woman to look at so much corn."
After winning the award, she thanked her family.
"My most true and unwavering sense of self comes from you," she said.
The other finalists were Allison Billmire, an English major with a creative writing minor from Cecil County; Ryan Manning, an English and chemistry double major and creative writing minor from Chestertown; James P. Mitchell, an American studies major and political science minor from Lititz, Pa.; and Lillian Starr, an English major from Cecil County.
A committee selects the winner from a pool of typically 30 portfolios.