CHESTERTOWN -- This year, the Eastern Shore's best-known literary prize -- all $62,099 of it -- went to a self-described "cornbread Eastern Shore girl" who said she never wanted to do anything but tell the stories of the place and its people.
That ambition, as it turns out, places 22-year-old Stephanie Fowler squarely in the company of Sophie Kerr, a prolific author who grew up in nearby Denton and made a fortune in New York, writing 23 novels and more than 100 magazine stories -- virtually all of them set on the Shore.
Kerr's endowment to Washington College in this Kent County municipality has supplied, for 34 years, cash for the best student writers, not to mention providing real drama at the small liberal arts school when the winner was announced at yesterday's commencement.
Across the street from the O'Neill Literary House, a rambling Victorian that serves as something of a fraternity house for Washington College's energetic literary culture, 241 graduates and hundreds more relatives and friends seemed little bothered by intermittent drizzle and a chill wind as they gathered on the college's expansive front lawn for diplomas, speeches and awards.
A brass quintet, protected under a huge hickory tree, played throughout the two-hour ceremony as many guests crowded under a caterer's white tents.
Alumni Kevin Noblet, a veteran Associated Press editor who has led investigative projects that earned two Pulitzer prizes, and Tamara Tiehel Stedman, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, filled in as commencement speakers for science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, 80, who was ill and unable to make the trip from his home in California.
Fowler, who refers to herself as a storyteller, said there was never any doubt as to what she wanted to do, prize or no prize.
"I wanted the Eastern Shore to be the background for all my stories," she said. "Eastern Shore people, Eastern Shore themes -- it's just always been a part of me."
In the introduction to her book, which Fowler dedicates to "you" the reader, she says that to be "haunted by language is perhaps the best gift I could have asked for."
Growing up on the Shore, she writes, "there is a desire to be exactly where we are. If we know anything, we know where home is."
These regional themes formed a 150-page book, her senior thesis, that combines elements of journalism, research and fiction. The self-assured former college volleyball player from Salisbury says it was a joy to write.
The book, "Crossings: A Journey into God's Country," is described as a work of creative nonfiction, a book that, after exhaustive research, tells tales as diverse as the story of a 60-year-old rape and murder that fueled racial tensions in rural Worcester County, and the violence and loss that accompanied the frequent border clashes between Virginia and Maryland watermen in the 1940s during what became known as the Oyster Wars.
"The book succeeded on so many levels -- there's such precision combined with rigorous research and elements of journalism and essay writing," said Melora Wolff, acting director of creative writing at the college and the professor who oversaw Fowler's thesis.
"This book has such a fierce vision," Wolff said. "The focus is on what keeps people loving their lives no matter what happens to them. Somewhere, Sophie Kerr must be smiling today."
Fowler is one of 22 young writers who submitted portfolios for the lucrative prize. A nine-member committee made its choice Friday, but only a handful of people on the close-knit campus knew the winner's name.
Yesterday, as Fowler sat with fellow graduates, the announcement seemed one "big, big drawn-out moment," she said.
When her name was called, Fowler, who once wrote a sonnet to her '95 Camaro called "Ode to an O," covered her face and wept. Her first thought was of her family -- her father Bruce, mother Jacki and younger sister Kristen (who will enroll at Washington College in August to study environmental science).
"I heard my name and I thought that somewhere in the audience, my family is making fools of themselves," Fowler said. "Somewhere out there, my family is going wild."
Her father, a 31-year paramedic with the Salisbury city fire department who with his wife owns a private ambulance service, credited his daughter's ability to focus on goals as a key to her success.
"I could hear her voice speaking, telling the stories as I read the book," Bruce Fowler said. "I'm just so proud. I need a ball and chain to hold me down."
Fowler, a sportswriter for the college paper whose volleyball teammates called her "Rocket," described the writing process as compulsive, a passion she has indulged since she won a fifth-grade essay contest that got her picture in the newspaper. Since then, she has filled countless journals and diaries.
Today, she plans to go to the bank, deposit her prize money and let it stay there until she's ready to move forward with another literary project, or add a couple more stories and find a publisher for her book."[The money] is going to sit until I make a book," Fowler says. "That's the spirit in which it was intended."