Sunday, May 22, 2005

Maryland College Awards Nation's Largest Undergraduate Literary Prize At 223rd Commencement

Senior Wins $53,609 for Short Fiction

Chestertown, MD, May 22, 2005 — 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 Claire Tomkin, 21, an English major at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, the ceremony brought another reward: a check for $53,609. Tomkin's portfolio of short stories earned her the largest undergraduate literary award in the country—the Sophie Kerr Prize—presented Sunday, May 22, during the College's 2005 Commencement ceremonies.

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 223-year-old liberal arts college. The Prize, worth $53,609 this year, is among the largest literary awards in the world. Washington College has awarded more than 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. Tomkin's winning submission was one of thirty portfolios entered in this year's competition.

“This was a difficult choice,” said English Professor Richard Gillin, who presided over the Sophie Kerr Prize Committee's deliberations. “The top level of submissions was as competitive as we've ever seen—in every genre. There was excellent scholarly work as well. This was an embarrassment of riches.”

Professor Gillin characterized Tomkin's stories as demonstrating “a sharp sense of setting and tone, precise observation, and nuanced emotion,” adding, “they earn the reader's attention.”

Professor Robert Mooney, a published fiction writer and the Director of the College's creative writing program and O'Neill Literary House, served as Tomkin's thesis advisor. Mooney shared Gillin's enthusiasm for this year's selection.

“In Tomkin's work, the strange is familiar and the familiar is strange, artfully putting the reader off-balance and positioned for change,” he said. “Claire has extraordinary depth and breadth of vision. She knows story, she thinks in story, and she thinks deeply.”

Tomkin plans to become a teacher. She is the daughter of Francina Tomkin of Jersey City, New Jersey.

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.

Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in historic Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, it is the first college chartered in the new nation.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Maryland College To Award Nation's Largest Undergraduate Literary Prize, May 22

Sophie Kerr Prize Valued at $53,609

Chestertown, MD, May 17, 2005 — On Sunday, May 22, a Washington College student will walk away from their college graduation with more than just a diploma and a tassel. One talented student will take away the coveted Sophie Kerr Prize, the nation's largest undergraduate literary award. Twenty-nine seniors are competing for the prize, valued at $53,609 this year.

The competition is open only to Washington College's graduating seniors and is not limited to “creative writing.” Students may submit portfolios of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or a mixture of genres and styles. A committee comprising members of the College's English Department and the College President selects the winner. According to Professor Robert Mooney, director of Washington College's creative writing program, the committee members look for “evidence of an intellect that feels, of a heart that thinks, and willingness to take risks” in the writing portfolios.

“The committee is comprised of people who have devoted their lives to and are passionate about literature, and when a potential winner is found, it is something akin to intuition,” says Mooney. “It's an immediate recognition of a student's promise and proclivity for joining the age-old conversation that is literature, a certain maturity of voice that demonstrates that they will hold their own in it.”

The Sophie Kerr Prize is the legacy of the late Sophie Kerr, a writer from Denton on Maryland's Eastern Shore. When she died in 1965, Kerr left the bulk of her estate to the College, specifying that one half of the income from her bequest be awarded every year to the senior showing the most “ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor” and the other half be used to bring visiting writers to campus, to fund scholarships, and to help defray the costs of student publications. Kerr was a prolific writer who began her career as a woman's page editor for the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph and the Pittsburgh Gazette, served as managing editor of the Woman's Home Companion, and authored more than 100 stories and 23 novels. During the 38 years that the Sophie Kerr Prize has been awarded, its value has ranged from $9,000 to as high as $65,000.

Washington College legend tells of a Sophie Kerr curse, that winning the prize dooms one to a life of literary obscurity instead of popular success. But Robert Day, professor of English and founder of Washington College's creative writing program, dismisses the idea.

“There's been talk through the years of a Sophie Kerr curse, but the idea is just an unfortunate artifact of alliteration,” says Day. “The fact is that we have a Sophie Kerr blessing that continues to enrich our campus culture and gives many a young writer a leg-up on their after-college literary pursuits.” Former Sophie Kerr Prize winners are now published novelists, poets, journalists, editors, university professors and teachers, he notes.

Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in historic Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, it is the first college chartered in the new nation.

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Historian Ron Chernow Awarded First Annual George Washington Book Prize for Alexander Hamilton

$50,000 Prize Announced May 7 at Mount Vernon

Chestertown, MD, May 8, 2005 — Historian and author Ron Chernow has been honored as the first recipient of the newly inaugurated George Washington Book Prize, awarded Saturday, May 7, at Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate. Mr. Chernow was recognized for his groundbreaking biography Alexander Hamilton (The Penguin Press, 2004), an examination of the contentious political and financial genius who co-authored The Federalist Papers and served as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

Conceived by Washington College’s C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the $50,000 prize recognizes outstanding published works that contribute to a greater understanding of the life and career of George Washington and/or the founding era.

“Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a magnificent achievement, bringing new life to an often-overlooked founder and restating how essential the Washington-Hamilton partnership was to the creation of the republic,” said Ted Widmer, Director of the C. V. Starr Center at Washington College. “This is a most worthy first recipient of the George Washington Book Prize.”

Hamilton is a spectacular inaugural winner of the Washington Book Prize,” commented Professor James Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a co-sponsor of the prize. “This annual prize will reward outstanding historians and serve everyone who cares about American history—scholars, teachers, and the general public alike."

An honors graduate of Yale and Cambridge, Mr. Chernow is recognized as one of the most distinguished commentators on politics and business in America today and has been hailed by Newsday as “one of today’s best writers of history and biography.” In addition to Alexander Hamilton—named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times—Mr. Chernow has authored several critically-acclaimed works, including The House of Morgan, which won the National Book Award as the best non-fiction book of 1990, The Warburgs (1993), The Death of the Banker (1997), and Titan (1998), a biography of John D. Rockefeller. A frequent contributor to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Mr. Chernow is a familiar figure on national radio and on television news and documentaries. He and his wife Valerie live in Brooklyn, New York..

In his remarks during the award ceremony at Washington’s historic estate, Mr. Chernow delighted the audience by announcing that his next project would focus on the prize’s namesake.

“I am thrilled that Ron Chernow’s next book will feature George Washington,” said James C. Rees, Executive Director of Mount Vernon. “With Mr. Chernow’s proven track record of producing such compelling work, I have no doubt that the important subject of Washington and his fascinating life will be in very capable hands.”

Also recognized during the event were finalists Rhys Isaac for Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation (Oxford) and Gordon Wood forThe Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (The Penguin Press). The finalists for 2004 were selected by a three-person jury of distinguished scholars of early American history: Don Higginbotham, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina; Philip D. Morgan, Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University; and Barbara Oberg, Senior Research Historian at Princeton University and General Editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

The George Washington Book Prize is a cooperative project of Washington College’s C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.

At $50,000, the George Washington Book Prize is the nation’s largest literary prize for early American history—far greater than those accompanying prestigious literary awards such as the Pulitzer Prize for History at $7,500, the National Book Award at $10,000, and the Bancroft Prize at $10,000. Drawing on the special strengths of Washington College and the historic colonial port of Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the C. V. Starr Center is an innovative forum for new scholarship dedicated to exploring the early republic, the rise of democracy, and the manifold ways in which the founding era continues to shape American culture.

Founded in 1782, Washington College holds the special distinction of being the only institution of higher learning that the first president patronized during his lifetime. Washington donated fifty guineas to the newly founded school, gave his consent for it to be named in his honor, and served on its board of Visitors and Governors. The college is also known for awarding the nation’s largest undergraduate literary prize, the Sophie Kerr Prize, currently valued at $53,000.

Press Coverage

Baltimore Sun, 5/8/05: Don't book first prize for Washington: Hamilton tome gets award named after president

Additional Links

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Fishing Secrets Of The Dead: Shore Poet Debuts First Collection Of Verse

Chestertown, MD, May 3, 2005 — Meredith Davies Hadaway, vice president of college relations at Washington College, has released her first collection of verse, Fishing Secrets of the Dead. A finalist in the Word Press First Book competition, Hadaway's collection embodies precise lyricism while delving into a watery world of birds and fishermen, hearkening to the litany of voices, memories, calls and noises that haunt the Eastern Shore landscape.

Hadaway, who lives on the Chester River, returned to school to earn her MFA in Poetry at Vermont College after the death of her husband. In September 2000, she began assembling the manuscript as part of her thesis requirement.

“My work is inseparable from the landscape and the river,” Hadaway says. “The poems say as much about nature as they do about love and loss. Each encompasses the other in a connection that is seamless.”

Interspersed among the poems are drawings by her late husband, Cawood Hadaway, a wildlife artist, avid fisherman and teacher at Queen Anne's County High School and later at the Gunston Day School. His work captures the images of the heron, ducks and kingfishers that inhabit the Chester's banks, marshes and coves.

“I thought of the river outside my window as a structural element in the book,” Hadaway says. “The poems move forward and backward through experience and memory, through grief and consolation with a motion that feels tidal.”

Critics have praised Hadaway's poems, which have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Absinthe Literary Review, Ellipsis, Isotope, Lilliput Review, MARGIE, Currents, the Delmarva Quarterly, and the Milestone.

“These poems are so clean and spare and poignant that they contain what can only be called truth and like truth they provide solace but not comfort,” said Michael Collier, poet and director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

Dave Smith, Elliot Coleman professor of Poetry at Johns Hopkins University, observes: “Sometimes as terse as Emily Dickinson, Hadaway is certainly the voice of Maryland's Eastern Shore in these poems that are as sweet and true as a cleaned shell shining in the hand.”

A resident of Chestertown whose full-time job is directing Washington College's Office of College Relations, Hadaway is also an accomplished harpist who has performed in the United States and Ireland.

Fishing Secrets of the Dead is available for $17.00 from local booksellers, online from Word Press (, or through