A passing conversation with a chemistry teacher at Manchester Valley High School set Catalina Righter on a path that led Friday to her winning one of writing’s most lucrative prizes.
The 22-year-old Righter, who grew up in northeastern Carroll County, was awarded Washington College‘s Sophie Kerr Prize — and the $65,768 in winnings that go with it to foster a future in literature. The Manchester woman thanked her high school teacher, a graduate of the Eastern Shore college, for encouraging her to consider attending the college to develop her writing and compete for the prize.
“I was absolutely shocked, which I am sure you could see on my face,” Righter, a senior, said Friday, minutes after being named the winner.
Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the award, the nation’s largest undergraduate writing prize.
Righter said she had not fully considered how she would spend the money, not wanting to “jinx” herself, but said the cash would give her a foundation as she looks to pursue a career in journalism. The prize doesn’t put any restrictions on how the recipient can spend the money. Many use it to cover living expenses or graduate education costs. One winner bought a motorcycle and traveled across the country.
Righter was chosen from a field of five finalists for the prize named for Sophie Kerr, an Eastern Shore native, successful writer and a collector of cats with names such as Useless, Worthless and Thomas Hardy.
A graduate of Hood College in Frederick, Kerr gave Washington College $510,878 in 1965 to establish the prize. She believed the college shared her values, with its emphasis on writing, connection to the land, commitment to intellectual discourse and respect for all living creatures — going as far as asking the president of the college if the institution supported the vivisection of cats. (He said it did not.)
Kerr, who died at 85, was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Gazette and managing editor of…