- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

CHESTERTOWN, Md. Flopped on an overstuffed couch, surrounded by worn paperbacks and framed posters of famous writers, poet and would-be author Tim Geaghan says he is trying to stay calm about the Sophie Kerr Prize.
Speculation about which of 22 Washington College seniors will win the coveted $54,266 cash prize has gotten out of hand. It has gone overboard, said Mr. Geaghan. However, try as he might to seem unconcerned about who will claim the prize at the May 21 commencement, Mr. Geaghan can't sustain it.
"They kill you with suspense," he said. "They wait until the very last, the end of the commencement to tell you. I know my knees will be knocking."
Surrounded by the farm fields of Maryland's Eastern Shore, Washington College, in Chestertown, may seem a world away from the tony literary circles of Manhattan. But here budding writers and their nurturing professors have been able, with the generosity of the Kerr endowment, to create a thriving culture of writing.
Kerr had written 23 novels and hundreds of short stories by the time of her death in 1965. In a 91-word paragraph written into her will, she gave Washington College a $500,000 trust fund.
The Kerr Prize, drawn from half the interest gained by the trust fund, has become one of the richest cash awards for student writers.
Kerr directed that the other half of the money gained from investing the trust fund be spent on scholarships, books and payment for authors to come to Washington College to read and lecture.
Since 1965, the Kerr trust fund has brought more than 200 writers to meet with students, including Vaclav Havel, Toni Morrison, James Michener and Allen Ginsberg.
The fund has also underwritten the College Writers Union, the biggest and most active of all student groups on the 1,100-student campus.
College officials credit the Kerr endowment, and the literary culture it underwrites, with attracting more students, forcing them to build more classrooms and search for more housing.
Student writers even have their own sanctuary on campus, the O'Neill Literary House, a three-story Victorian that was the gift of an alumna.
Its walls are lined with framed handbills of the visiting authors turned upside down if the students didn't care for the author's reading or attitude.
It is a haven where students can find conversation, coffee and maybe a peaceful place to work.
"People know when you're here to leave you alone, that you're writing," said senior Scott Dobrosielsky in a tiny third-floor room with candles and a Franz Kafka poster. "You can come here just to work. In the dorm, you have your bed right next to your computer and it's harder to get work done."
Who will get the prize? It's a topic of gossip for some, scrutiny for others.
For example, a poet won last year, so it can't be a poet this year, said John Verbos. A senior from Ellicott City, Md., and an admitted "stat freak," Mr. Verbos says he has spent hours trying to discern a pattern among the winners.
Why the excitement?
"It's just the concept of being the chosen one," said Jolene Lehr, a senior from Allentown, Pa.

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