CHESTERTOWN - When Laura Maylene Walter left the 221st commencement here at Washington College yesterday, she was holding a lot more than sheepskin.
Oh, the 22-year-old from Lancaster, Pa., won plenty of accolades, along with 228 other graduates. For one thing, she picked up summa cum laude honors from an English department stacked with talented, ambitious young writers and scholars.
But 30 minutes after the ceremony, it was Walter who was surrounded by a pack of reporters, photographers and beaming college officials as she clutched an unopened envelope. Inside was a check with her name on it worth $61,133 - this year's total for the Sophie Kerr Prize, the nation's richest undergraduate writing award.
Though she kept her composure when her name was announced to a standing ovation in a packed college gymnasium - even as her dorm roommate, Ariel Beth Paskin, leaped in the air - Walter was teary-eyed and stunned moments later as she hugged classmates and family members.
"Obviously, I knew about the prize before I came here as a freshman; all of us knew about it," said Walter, one of 27 seniors to submit their work for consideration this year. "But it's not the kind of thing you would count on.
"I'm really not sure what I'm going to do now or where I'm going to live. It would be tempting to take time and write, or maybe take a trip," she said.
In a peculiar tradition that never fails to generate a flurry of publicity for the small liberal arts school near the Chester River, Walter became the 36th recipient of the whopping award.
Low temperatures and frequent downpours forced yesterday's commencement indoors from The Green - the immaculate lawn in the oldest part of the campus that lies beneath the statue of George Washington, an early benefactor who helped found the college in 1782. When the gym's bleachers filled up, about 600 people watched the ceremony on closed-circuit television from an adjacent auditorium.
The announcement, as always, is held amid such an atmosphere of secrecy that only the half-dozen members of the English department's selection committee know the winner's name until nearly the end of the two-hour ceremony.
The prize is named for Eastern Shore native Sophie Kerr, a fiction writer from nearby Denton.
Upon her death in 1965, Kerr bequeathed most of the small fortune she had earned writing magazine short stories and 23 novels to the college.
The investment income from Kerr's $500,000 bequest waxes and wanes with the stock and bond markets. Each spring, the college's most promising young writer gets the biggest chunk of that annual income for the graduation prize, and the rest helps support a thriving writing culture on campus.
The writing program is headquartered in the Victorian-era O'Neill Literary House, where over the years dozens of contemporary writers have come for seminars, readings and workshops - all paid with money from Kerr's legacy.
In addition to the senior award, which has ranged in value from $9,000 to $65,000 since it was first given in 1968, the endowment provides scholarships for three freshmen each year. Walter won one of those grants in 1999.
Walter, the youngest of three children, was precocious, reading adult-level books as a small child, said her brother Scott, a 27-year-old computer engineer.
"I think the difference was that while my brother and I were watching TV, she was always reading books," he said.
It was after her mother's death from cancer two years ago that Walter began forming the concept of her first novel, the 129-page Developing Olivia.
Written over countless hours in one of the tiny fellowship rooms at O'Neill House, the story is about a young woman who comes to terms with her mother's death after finding a roll of undeveloped film shot before she died.
Professor Robert Mooney, who heads the writing program, called Walter's theme the "perfect metaphor for an undeveloped relationship."
Mooney, who read at least three versions of the novel, lauded Walter's maturity as a writer and her "beautiful prose style that doesn't feel like a style."
For Walter, the novel allowed her to reach beyond her loss - to push herself as a writer, and she said he plans to continue developing it.
"I didn't want it to be sappy, too personal," she said. "One of the difficulties was to use the emotional basis of my life, but to turn it into fiction."