Beginning in 1968, when the first Sophie Kerr Prize was awarded, each graduation at Washington College built to a moment of exquisite tension.
Which one of more than 20 aspiring writers would receive the nation's most lucrative undergraduate literary prize, the kind of money that could jump-start a career? Each year, the aspirants and all of their college classmates found out at the same moment.
But this year, the college's best-known tradition will not be carried out at graduation. And it won't happen in Chestertown. Instead, the winner of the $61,062 prize will learn of his or her triumph on a Tuesday night in Manhattan, surrounded by literary big shots rather than hundreds of Washington College seniors.
"This is a magnificent prize, going to incredibly talented students, and they weren't quite getting the recognition they deserved," says the college's first-year president, Mitchell Reiss, in explaining the rationale. "That was going to continue to be the case if we awarded it at graduation in Chestertown."
The change has drawn mixed reactions from former winners, current students and community members.
Last year's winner, Hailey Reissman, says the prize casts too large a shadow over graduation. "For me, it was ridiculous even trying to sleep the night before," she says. "There was this guilt, feeling so much anxiety over a prize instead of just being like, 'Yeah, I'm graduating.' "
She's a fan of the new plan. But some who question the change say graduation simply won't be as exciting without the prize.
"The drama of graduation is going to be taken away," says Trish McGee, a 1981 graduate of the college who has covered more than 20 ceremonies for the weekly Kent County News. "From a local-interest standpoint, it's one of the biggest things. How much? What is the winner's story? When you move that up to New York, we're not going to go up there to cover it."
Reiss suggested the possible change to faculty members in the fall and was pleased to learn that they had already discussed awarding the prize at a setting other than graduation. The campus officially learned of the change this year.
For the first time since the prize was created in the 1960s, the Sophie Kerr committee will narrow candidates to a field of five or six finalists and will announce the winner somewhere other than the college's campus. The ceremony will be held May 17 at Poets House in Battery Park City, with a keynote speech from award-winning author Colum McCann.
Officials cite two main reasons, one practical and one emotional, for awarding the prize in New York.
On the practical side, they say, the setting will allow the winner and finalists to hobnob with publishing executives and writers who might help them launch careers. On the emotional side, they say, the change will remove from graduation day the feelings of intense disappointment experienced by those who don't win.
"If you have 30 students who applied, 29 are going to leave the last day of college feeling pretty miserable," says Rich Gillin, an English professor and interim chairman of the Sophie Kerr committee.
McGee says she hopes the winner and finalists get more attention because of the new setting. "I understand the reasons, and I'm probably just being narrow-minded," she says. "But my first thought was, 'What would Sophie think?' She worked all those years in New York, and if she wanted it on the big stage, she would have put it on the big stage."
Kerr, a magazine editor and writer of women's fiction who grew up on the Eastern Shore and spent her working life in New York, bequeathed the prize (half of the annual income from her donation to the college) to the senior with the "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor." The sum was $9,000 when the prize was first awarded in 1968 and has fluctuated to as much as $68,814 in 2009.
Alice Horner, a senior from Catonsville who plans to submit a portfolio for the prize, says most of her friends appreciate the idea of less pressure on graduation day. But like McGee, she wonders if the move fits Kerr's vision.
"I'm not a fan of it at all," she says. "I feel the whole idea is to honor Sophie, and part of that is honoring the Eastern Shore. Doing it in New York feels more superficial to me, like we're selling out. … It's a great place, but it's not us."
Reiss, who calls the move an experiment, hopes the practical benefits of students getting their faces and work in front of literary decision makers will outweigh any reservations.
"I hope we're not losing a connection to the local area," the president says. "But it doesn't get a whole lot better than a National Book Award winner hosting the ceremony with an audience of publishing people and agents."
Previous winners say they see both sides of the decision.