CHESTERTOWN -- A 21-year-old Eastern Shore native picked up a check for $55,907 at Washington College yesterday - the nation's richest undergraduate writing award.
And if Marshall Shord Jr. wasn't too stunned to listen to keynote commencement speaker Chris Matthews, he heard some advice for spending at least part of his winnings. The political talk show host urged graduates to take risks in their 20s, while they are young and the consequences of their mistakes are fewer.
Shord, a low-key English major from Ocean Pines, said his professors had primed him for graduate school, but with the Sophie Kerr Prize in hand he might consider taking a break from the academic world, "the only environment I've ever really been in."
"Maybe it's time for rethinking," said Shord, the 39th student to land the prize. "I'm still shellshocked; I had no clue. It's just a check, but it is huge. Maybe the answer is the road, travel."
Shord, a 2002 graduate of Stephen Decatur High School near Ocean City, described himself as a lazy student until he began college. He was never one who scribbled in notebooks. Writing, Shord said, is too hard to be fun.
"I don't enjoy the process of writing, just the end result," said Shord, who submitted about 10 poems, several unfinished short stories and his senior thesis, a critical essay about the novelist Thomas Pynchon - a writer whose work he came to love during his four years in Chestertown.
Richard Gillin, who heads Washington's English department, described Shord as a "brilliant" student who won over the 10-member award committee that pored over all types of writing from 31 seniors who submitted portfolios this year.
Matthews, who is best known for his Hardball political show on the MSNBC cable network, mostly steered away from politics yesterday. Instead, he talked at the college's 224th commencement ceremony about touring Africa in the Peace Corps, "a white guy on a Suzuki motorbike."
"I'm trying to push you kids to do something wild," Matthews said. "Do something crazy before you settle down, get married and make the bucks. You need to get out of one world and into another, off the track and out of your rut. Don't be scared of mistakes; you'll make plenty."
Joining Matthews in receiving an honorary degree was Mortimer M. Caplin, a lawyer and philanthropist who recalled that he, too, graduated in trying times, just months before the U.S. entered World War II.
The commencement speech given when his Class of 1940 graduated from the University of Virginia Law School was delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Caplan advised the 324 graduates: "As citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, aspire to be public citizens who are in position to contribute to the common good."
A successful Eastern Shore writer of women's fiction in the 1930s and 1940s, Kerr died in 1965 and bequeathed $500,000 to the college. Under guidelines established in her will, the writing prize goes to the most promising senior writer. The amount is drawn each year from half the investment income from her donation, with the other half to be used for scholarships, visiting writers and other literary programs.
Since 1968, the college has handed out more than $1 million to prizewinners, who received amounts ranging from $9,000 to $65,000.