CHESTERTOWN -- A 22-year-old playwright who has already proven himself something of an expert on medieval literature, walked away from his Washington College commencement here yesterday carrying a check for $60,027 - the largest undergraduate writing award in the country.
Not even an appearance by an actor on horseback portraying George Washington (an early benefactor of the liberal arts college that bears his name) could overshadow the suspense of the Sophie Kerr Prize, among diplomas and academic honors given to 360 graduates.
Each year, the literary award winner, chosen by a 10-member committee, is a closely guarded secret until the young writer's name is called near the end of the graduation ceremony at Maryland's oldest college.
Liam Daley of Drexel Hill, Pa., showed little emotion yesterday as friends and fellow students let out a collective gasp and whooped. He strolled toward the stage where college President Baird Tipson and other academic luminaries presided over ceremonies marking the school's 225th year on the lush Great Lawn of the 126-acre campus.
Later, Daley, whose close-cropped dark beard makes him appear older, seemed at ease despite the glare of media attention and praise from teachers, parents and friends that came with his moment in the spotlight.
After spending one of his undergraduate years abroad at St. Andrews in Scotland, Daley said the check will help cover expenses for a return there for more intense study of Shakespeare.
"It is a 12-month program, so the money will be helpful," said Daley, who jokingly says that beyond academic prowess, his only claim to fame is as the founder of Washington College's Capture the Flag Society.
"Seriously, I'd like to maybe act some more, and always to keep writing. I could teach or maybe get some sort of job in drama," Daley said. "I plan to continue acting."
A double major in drama and English literature, Daley was one of 40 seniors who submitted portfolios for the contest. Professors who know Daley say his work has been remarkable from the beginning.
Kathryn Moncrief, who will head Washington's English department next fall, said she remembers Daley translating and writing a medieval play for a Renaissance Christmas program.
"Liam is one of a kind, someone who is just multitalented," Moncrief said. "It wasn't a requirement or an assignment for a class. He did it on his own."
For the competition, which is open to any senior, Daley submitted a portfolio that included a critical thesis on medieval English literature, along with plays and short prose.
Sara Daley, Liam's 19-year-old sister, is a rising sophomore at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. She usually edits his work before it is submitted.
"I know his work, and I was expecting him to win," she said. "I had a feeling."
Their parents, Thomas Daley and Donna Weaversling, who are both architects, were stunned when Liam's name was called. But then again, maybe they should have expected it.
"He wrote a play in the eighth grade, and he's been writing ever since," said Thomas Daley. "His heroes are Monte Python, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Groucho Marx."
The literary prize has been paid for 40 years from a $500,000 endowment left to the college by Kerr, a newspaper editor and fiction writer from nearby Denton. Investment income from the fund has also paid for dozens of prominent writers to come read their work or teach seminars.
Over the years, promising young writers have received anywhere from $9,000 to $65,000. Last year's winner earned $53,609.
"The thing that set Liam's work apart was that balance between creative and critical writing," said Richard Gillin, the English department chairman who has judged 33 of the 40 Sophie Kerr contests." He's already established himself as a scholar. He has the drive, the intellect and the talent to go wherever he wants."