Sunday, May 18, 2003

Maryland College Awards Nation's Largest Undergraduate Literary Prize At 221st Commencement Ceremony

Senior from Lancaster, PA Wins $61,133

Chestertown, MD, May 18, 2003 — Most college seniors will look back on their graduation ceremony as a day of pomp and circumstance culminating in a handshake and a diploma. For Laura Maylene Walter, a 22-year-old English major at Washington College in Chestertown, MD, the ceremony brought another reward: a check for $61,133. Walter's portfolio of fiction and poetry earned her the largest undergraduate literary award in the country—the Sophie Kerr Prize.
The awarding of the Sophie Kerr Prize, given annually to the graduating senior who demonstrates the greatest “ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor,” has in recent decades been a highlight of the commencement ceremony at the 221-year-old liberal arts college. The Prize, worth $61,133 this year, is among the largest literary awards in the world. Washington College has awarded nearly one million dollars in prize money since it was first given in 1968, most often to writers of poetry and fiction. Scholarly and journalistic works, though less often selected, are given equal consideration. Walter's winning submission—a novel in progress and eight poems—was one of twenty-seven portfolios submitted for this year's prize.
“This was a difficult choice,” said Professor Bennett Lamond, who presided over the Sophie Kerr Prize Committee's deliberations. “There were some very strong writers among the pool.”
Professor Robert Mooney, Director of the College's creative writing program and O'Neill Literary House, cited Walter's “elegantly supple prose and the musical charm of her poetry” as decisive factors in the committee's selection of her portfolio. “Laura draws from her life without allowing the work to become enmeshed in the private unformed emotion or the trite; quite the contrary, her work investigates, through a brilliant use of language, those human moments that we all share and hold and are called upon to answer,” Mooney said.
In the introduction to her winning portfolio, Walter says her novel began as a response to the grief of her mother's illness and subsequent death two years ago. “After her death, I decided to transform these experiences into a work of fiction,” she wrote. “I investigated the ways we enter and leave this world, the power of memory, and how the past affects the present.”
The daughter of William J. Walter, Jr. of Florida, and the late June Walter of Lancaster, PA, Walter graduated summa cum laude with departmental honors in English. During her years as a student at Washington College, Walters was a writer for the student newspaper, the editor of a literary Broadsides series and a contributor to the Washington College Review, a liberal arts journal. She hopes to continue work on her novel while pursuing a career in publishing.
The Sophie Kerr Prize is the namesake of an Eastern Shore woman who made her fortune in New York, writing women's fiction during the 1930s and 1940s. In accordance with the terms of her will, one-half of the annual income from her bequest to the College is awarded each year to the graduating senior demonstrating the best potential for literary achievement. The other half funds scholarships, supports student publications and the purchase of books, and brings an array of visiting writers, editors and publishers to campus to read, visit classes and discuss student work. Her gift has provided the nucleus for an abundance of literary activity on the bucolic Eastern Shore campus.

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