The 36 Lives of Sophie Kerr

Tracing The Legacy Of A Legendary Literary Bequest

Life With Sophie

Winning Washington College's annual literary lottery ensures only one thing: Sophie Kerr will always be a part of your life.

Cover Story

May 16, 2004|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,Sun Staff

Sophie Kerr, child of the Eastern Shore and writer of popular romances, could not have known the effect she would have on the lives of so many writers who would come after her.

How could the woman who wrote 23 novels (titles like Stay Out of My Life, Cora Goes On and Love Story Incidental) -- and more than 100 short stories -- have known the legacy she would create when she left $510,878 to Washington College in Chestertown?

How could she have known her endowment would skyrocket to $2.3 million today and come to fund the largest undergraduate literary prize in the nation?

Could Sophie Kerr ever have imagined students at Washington College would one day speak to an oil painting of her in the library and call her "Saint Sophie" -- despite the fact that she graduated from Hood College in Frederick?

Kerr died of a heart attack in 1965, at the age of 84, and bequeathed much of her estate to the small private college where, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, she received an honorary degree in 1942. Kerr's will specified that one half of the income her bequest generated be used to buy books and bring writers to the campus. The other half, it said, should "be used annually as a cash prize to be known and designated as the Sophie Kerr Prize, to be awarded to the senior student, at graduation, who shall have been chosen as having the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor."

In the three decades since Christina (Clark) Rohde was called to a professor's house a few nights before commencement in 1968 and told she'd won $9,000, 35 other young writers have received checks, the largest of which -- $65,522 -- was given to Sarah Blackman in 2002.

Many spent the prize on travels to Europe. Many bought motorcycles, cars or furniture, and many used the money to pay for graduate school or make a down payment on a first house or cover the bills while they attempted to earn a living as a writer. Only one used a portion to buy herself a Leonard Rosoman painting, and only one to pay blues singer Big Joe Turner to sing at his wedding reception.

Of the writers who have won the Sophie Kerr Prize, one has published a novel, and two a collection of short stories. More have published books of poetry, but only one, 2000 winner Christine Lincoln, has gone on to literary fame.

Some past winners still write every day, some no longer write at all. Some are now teachers and professors, some editors and journalists. Among the winners is an antique dealer, an advertising executive, a surgeon, a photographer, a librarian, a homemaker, a bookkeeper, a comic book illustrator, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and a writer of copy for Victoria's Secret.

Today at Washington College's commencement, another young man or woman -- a fledgling fiction writer, a budding poet, a literary critic wannabe -- will join their ranks. And inside the envelope handed to the 2004 winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize will be a check for $56,169.

How the winner spends the money will be up to him or her.

But if there is one thing the past winners might agree on to tell this year's winner, it would be the thing the benefactor must have known all along: No matter what happens to you, from this day forward, Sophie Kerr will be a part of your life.

Sophie's Purse

It is the rude question but the one that first comes to mind. And no wonder. The prize, in economic good times, pays more than the esteemed Pulitzer Prize.

"I ran right through my money to see what the world is about," said Rohde, the first winner, who now operates a community e-zine in New Jersey.

"Dr. Nicholas Newlin, head of the English Department then, said, 'Don't go home and sit down at the desk and start writing. Go out and live so you'll have something to write about.'

"And I took that advice to heart."

Arthur E. Bilodeau, who won $16,500 in 1978, bought a corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches from Sears and went to Europe for three months with Mary Ellen (Lipinski) Miller, who won $16,000 in 1977. They were dating at the time.

Dean Hebert, who won $27,836 in 1988, used the money for graduate school. Winners before him had been told about their prizes before commencement, so Hebert assumed someone else had won. When his name was announced at the ceremony, he nearly fainted. He spent some of his prize on a 1973 Mustang -- because he could.

In 1972, Robert Burkholder won $13,000, then went straight to graduate school. He has since become a professor of English at Penn State University, but back then he struggled to make ends meet. He splurged on a few suits after he won and even asked the bank for a $1,000 bill to carry around. But he deposited the bulk of the money and didn't touch it until his bride cried one day because the meat she bought cost more than she thought.

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