CHESTERTOWN -- An aspiring journalist who often made college officials wince with the irreverent editorials he wrote for his school newspaper was awarded the lucrative Sophie Kerr literary prize yesterday at Washington College's 210th commencement.
The prize, a tax-free check for $23,145, went to Patrick W. Attenasio, a 21-year-old English major from Mountainside, N.J., who was among some 30 graduating seniors whose literary abilities were scrutinized by a panel of academic judges.
Mr. Attenasio, who also wrote short stories and helped found satirical publications at the small Eastern Shore school, did not know he had been picked to receive the prize until his name was announced during the graduation ceremony.
"It was the longest second of my life," he said afterward. "Most of the people I knew who were the best writers were sitting right in front of me."
The annual award was first given by the college 24 years ago. It is named after the late novelist and Eastern Shore native Sophie Kerr, who died in 1965 and endowed the college with about $500,000. Half the annual interest from the endowment is earmarked for the prize, with the remaining funds used by the English Department to bolster lecture and writing programs.
School officials believe it is the largest undergraduate prize in the country and among the largest literary awards in the world. The amount fluctuates according to the rise and fall of investment earnings. At its beginning, it was worth $9,000. In 1983 and 1984, it had risen to $35,000.
Bennett Lamond, chairman of the English Department, said it isn't easy selecting one senior each year to receive the award.
"It's been difficult from the start," he said. "Difficult, but a pleasure, too."
Although a number of recipients later became published authors and continue to write, the award is called the "Sophie Curse" in some college circles because several promising winners supposedly never wrote again after they left the school.
But Mr. Attenasio said the legendary curse does not bother him.
"I will not be under any kind of curse," he said. "I don't consider the prize to be a beginning or an end. It's a celebration."
Mr. Attenasio said he did not know what he would do with the money, but he may consider enrolling in graduate school after taking time off from his studies.
Because of financial restrictions, Mr. Attenasio accelerated his course load so he could graduate with a degree in three years instead of the customary four.
For the past year, Mr. Attenasio served as editor of the student newspaper, The Elm, but he did not tell his mother until yesterday because he said she would have objected to him taking on extra work in addition to his courses. He said he had his sister at home screen all mail from the college so his parents would not know of his extracurricular activities.
As editor, Mr. Attenasio was often critical of the college administration and on one occasion called for the bulldozing of a new student center.
"He's never been a follower," said his mother, Kathleen Attenasio. "He's always been a boat-rocker. There are many grammar school teachers I wish I could contact."
Mr. Attenasio said he knew of the prize before he came to Washington College, but said he was lured here by the school's creative writing program.
"If you're attracted to this school for the Sophie Kerr prize, you're coming for the wrong reason," he said.
"A lot of colleges have creative writing programs," said Kevin Coveney, director of college admissions. "No one has what we have."