Kerr prize rewards a passion for writing

At Washington College, graduate receives $65,522 with annual literary grant

May 20, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN -- It's not as if this all came as a surprise. No, if you're the parents of Sarah Hanley Blackman, you could see it coming years ago.

Well, maybe not the $65,522; no one could have predicted that kind of success.

But there she was yesterday, the 22-year-old daughter of James Blackman and Melinda Zeder on her graduation day at Washington College, clutching a check along with her diploma. The no-strings reward comes for winning the Sophie Kerr Prize, the nation's largest undergraduate literary award.

"She wrote me a little book when she was 5," said James Blackman, who, like his wife, is an archaeological researcher for the Smithsonian Institution. "Of course, we still have it."

Even earlier, before she could read or write, Sarah Blackman says she was making up stories and dictating them to her parents. By the time she was 3 1/2 , she had learned to read and has never really stopped writing.

"I guess I've always told stories, even when I told them to myself," said Blackman, who grew up in Bethesda.

"Mostly, I write poetry, but I included poetry, short fiction and a critical essay in my portfolio for the Sophie Kerr, just to kind of cover all the bases," Blackman said. "This is going to help me so much in having the time to write full-time, the freedom to write."

Caught up yesterday in the blur of interviews and photo sessions that always accompany the Kerr prize announcement, a closely guarded secret that has become a highlight of graduation ceremonies on the leafy 220-year-old Kent County campus, Blackman, who graduated summa cum laude, acknowledged being a tad flustered by the unaccustomed attention.

After being hustled into a news conference in a paneled conference room in an imposing brick administration building, Blackman and her family were swept along to a luncheon with college officials and guests including actor Larry Hagman and Rep. Constance A. Morella, yesterday's two commencement speakers.

Sophie Kerr, a native of nearby Denton, made a name for herself as a fiction writer in the 1930s and '40s.

Kerr's $500,000 endowment provides the investment income that has helped fund a thriving literary culture at the college, as well as the annual award that goes to the college's most promising young writer. The first recipient in 1968 got $9,000.

Words of advice

Last year's winner, Eastern Shore native Stephanie Fowler, had a few words of advice for Blackman yesterday, recommending that she not get caught up in the flurry of publicity surrounding the award.

"After four years of writing pretty much by yourself, you don't want to take too seriously everything that's written about you," said Fowler, who lately has been living and writing in her family's waterfront summer house near Crisfield. "In the turn of one moment, you don't want to hit your peak at 22."

Within sight of the three-story O'Neill Literary House, which serves as a center for the 100-member Literary Union, Blackman sat anxiously biting her lip under the shade of massive American beech trees that line the historic college green yesterday, as diplomas were handed out to 206 graduates and other student awards were announced.

Her friend, Katie Smuckler, a fellow writer who was also among 26 seniors who submitted their work in the Kerr competition, whooped as loudly as anyone when Blackman's name was called.

"I was hoping so much she would win," Smuckler said. "She's a terrific writer. There are a lot of good writers here, but she is the one."

A new chapter

Blackman, who graduated second in her class and is noted for her work with Habitat for Humanity, says she might eventually head for graduate school and a career as a college teacher, emulating her aunt Susan Zeder, a playwright and University of Texas professor. Meanwhile, she's headed for California, planning to join friends who live in Los Angeles.

"I owe this school so much; it's given me the opportunity to write," Blackman said.

"Now I have the chance to write full time. Now, sort of everything is next for me."

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