NEW YORK—An Anthropology major who wrote about a life-changing trip to Tanzania and the simple pleasures of life in a one-intersection town in the Maryland countryside has won the largest student literary prize in the nation, the Sophie Kerr Prize.
Lisa Beth Jones, who grew up in tiny Fork, northeast of Baltimore, was named the winner Tuesday evening, May 17, at a special reception at Poets House in New York. That means she will cap her four years of study at Washington College this coming Sunday by walking off the commencement stage with a check for $61,062—a prize believed to the be the largest awarded to any senior anywhere this graduation season.
For 43 years, the Sophie Kerr Prize has gone to the graduating senior at Washington College who demonstrates the greatest literary ability and promise. Jones earned it with a portfolio of nonfiction work that includes travel writing, recollections of family life on a farm, and excerpts from her senior thesis on African immigrants in America. In writing about the month she spent on a College-sponsored trip to Tanzania the spring of her Junior year, she delivered sensory postcards of the land and the people based on entries from her weathered travel journal.
The committee of 13 English professors who selected Jones from among 30 portfolios, were impressed with the way she shaped a sense of place with her language and with the maturity she brought to her observations and her craft. “She takes a place that means a lot to her, whether her home town or a country in Africa, and, through a constellation of anecdotes and the powers of description, makes that place come alive for others,” says Kathryn Moncrief, the chair of the Sophie Kerr Committee. “Her writing was intimate, honest and vivid.”
While at Washington College, Jones earned a place on the Dean’s List every semester and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. She also made time to work in the College’s Geographic Information Systems Lab and to help other students in the campus writing center. She finished her required coursework in December and has since worked as the Grants & Contracts Coordinator at the International Youth Foundation in Baltimore and as a travel writer for Examiner.com.
This year, for the first time, the Sophie Kerr Committee also selected four finalists for the prize. They are:
Maggie Farell, 22, a Drama major from Hatfield, Pa. who submitted a full length stage play and short stories about working her first job—and learning Hindi—at a Dunkin Donuts.
Dan McCloskey, 21, of Ellicott City, Md., an English major who minored in Spanish and Creative Writing. His creative nonfiction manuscript captured in stark and powerful fashion his struggles with the vision deficiencies that render him legally blind.
Insley Smullen, 22, of Frederick, Md., an English major whose fascination with the natural world and love of language shone through in her poetry and creative nonfiction.
And Joe Yates, 22, a Tampa native who double majored in Biology and Studio Art and wrote about everything from elderly relatives to complex scientific theories with sophistication and humor.
The Sophie Kerr Prize is the namesake of an Eastern Shore woman who forged a successful career in the New York publishing world. Born in 1880 in Denton, Md., some 30 miles from Washington College, she graduated from Hood College and launched her career briefly in Pittsburgh as the women’s page editor at two newspapers. After moving to New York, she became managing editor of the Woman’s Home Companion. A prolific writer, Kerr published 23 novels and published hundreds of short stories in the popular magazines of the day, including The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and McCall’s.
When she died in 1965, she left more than $500,000 to Washington College with the stipulation that half the income from the bequest would be awarded annually to the senior showing “the most ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.” Over the years, the endowment from Kerr’s gift has provided more than $1.4 million in prize money to promising young writers, in amounts that have ranged from $9,000 the inaugural year, 1968, to a high of nearly $69,000 in 2009. The winners have gone on to establish careers as writers, editors, teachers, and marketing professionals, and many have published their work as novels or collections of short stories or poetry.
The other half of Kerr’s bequest funds scholarships and library acquisitions, and brings a parade of world-class literary figures from across all genres to campus for public readings and workshops. Such literary luminaries as Edward Albee, Jonathan Franzen, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison and William Styron have visited Washington College under the auspices of the Sophie Kerr Lecture Series.
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 was the first college to be chartered in the new nation. For more information, visit http://www.washcoll.edu.
Photo: Lisa Jones with primary school students in Tanzania.
In the NewsBaltimore Sun, 5/17/11