Sophie Kerr prize awarded to Baltimore County resident in New York City

— The look of joyous disbelief on Lisa Jones' face was similar to those worn by previous winners of Washington College's Sophie Kerr Prize.

But everything else leading up to Tuesday's announcement — from the afternoon trip over the Brooklyn Bridge to the National Book Award winner pulling Jones' name from his blazer — was a departure from the past.

Instead of receiving the nation's most lucrative undergraduate literary prize before a crowd of cap-and-gowned college kids in Chestertown, Jones won it in the capital of the publishing world, with the Hudson River as a majestic backdrop.

For the first time in its 43-year history, the prize was bestowed in New York, the town where Kerr worked as a writer and magazine editor, rather than in the quiet Eastern Shore community where she grew up.

Jones, a Baltimore County resident, will receive $61,062, or $25,429 more than the average starting salary for a 2011 liberal arts graduate and $51,062 more than keynote speaker Colum McCann netted for his 2009 National Book Award.

"I envision using the money to do things I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise," she said.

The Perry Hall graduate won for a portfolio that included vivid depictions of her volunteer work in Tanzania and musings on her life growing up in small-town Fork.

"Tears rolled down the cheeks of a man who had killed a lion when he was 16 years old," she wrote of Adam, a guide she befriended in Tanzania.

Jones hopes to use the Kerr money to return to Africa and to help build a library at one of the schools she visited there.

Her father, Rob, said he first recognized her talent when she won a countywide competition with an alien-themed essay titled "The Boy That Fell to Earth." She was in the second grade.

"I read her pieces and I think, 'There's all that going on in there,'" he said at a post-ceremony reception in Poets House in Battery Park City.

Jones beat four other finalists, all of whom made the trip to Manhattan after the field was narrowed from 30 entrants on Friday.

The group included a drama major from Pennsylvania who wrote snappy dialogue about working at Dunkin' Donuts and a biology major from Florida whose portfolio mixed musings on contemporary science with off-kilter nursery rhymes.

There was the Ellicott City student who wrote frankly of his battles with anxiety disorders and vision impairment and the Frederick native whose portfolio paid homage to the natural world.

Washington College's first-year president, Mitchell Reiss, broached the idea of moving the ceremony to New York last fall and found faculty members receptive.

Reiss liked the idea that the winner and finalists would have an immediate chance to pitch their work to a crowd of New York writers and literary agents. Faculty members appreciated that the prize would no longer overshadow graduation and that the runners-up would no longer feel like losers on a day meant for celebration.

But all did not receive the change warmly. Some students and Chestertown neighbors argued that Kerr meant for the prize to be given on the Eastern Shore. If she had wanted it delivered in New York, they reasoned, she would have set it up in New York.

Pros and cons aside, the college's commencement on Sunday is sure to feel different without the climax of the Kerr announcement. After years of anticipation, the contest reduces the college's top writers to nervous wrecks.

Dan McCloskey, the Ellicott City native, dreamed of the prize the night before the finalists were announced. Other competitors fretted beside their telephones on Friday, convinced with every silent minute that the congratulatory call would never come.

"In my group of friends, we've talked about it in a semi-competitive fashion for four years," said Joe Yates, the biology and studio arts major from Florida.

The writers seemed happy to have the tension broken five days and hundreds of miles from commencement.

"I think it's a little bit much for graduation," said Maggie Farrell, the drama major from Pennsylvania. "Not just for the people who applied but for everybody."

Kerr bequeathed the prize (half of the annual income from her donation to the college) to the senior with the "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor." The sum was $9,000 when the prize was first awarded in 1968 and has fluctuated to as much as $68,814 in 2009.

The five finalists traveled to New York by van on Tuesday morning and spent part of the afternoon talking about writing with 10th-graders at Achievement First Brooklyn High School.

The kids giggled as Farrell read a monologue, written from the point of view of a middle-aged divorcee who had just endured a mortifying date. They asked her to read more. "I'm actually not sure it's appropriate for high school," she said sheepishly.

Yates charmed the group with quasi-romantic musings about salamanders, insects and bonding molecules. Of a certain Asian beetle's love life, he read, "This guy barely puts his pants on, developmentally speaking."

The Brooklyn students, who didn't seem so fond of writing, asked the Kerr finalists how they found their passion.

"My father would pay me cash to write stories," McCloskey said. "I guess that works."

But he and Farrell assured the students that, if nothing else, writing well would give them a huge leg up in college and professional life.

On the way back over the Brooklyn Bridge, the finalists neatly hid their nervousness beneath steady patter about Lorena Bobbitt, Donkey Kong and singing parrots on YouTube.

"I feel like I just vomit pop culture," Yates said absently.

The mood tightened at the ceremony itself. McCann alluded to the stakes in his introductory remarks, describing the first literary prize he won from the Irish government when he was 21.

"It was a significant thing that lent me voice," he said.

The pained smiles on the faces of the four runners-up suggested that they knew what they had lost.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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