PORTLAND – Ericka Lee-Winship remembers how she felt when she received a Brown Memorial Medal at her graduation from Portland High School in 1991.

“I remember my grandfather looking at it and saying, ‘This is really special,’ ” said Lee-Winship, who now heads the high school’s social studies department. “I think it’s really important to continue that tradition.”

But, she said, this may be the first year since 1865 that the silver medals aren’t given to the Portland High students with the highest grade-point averages. The Brown Memorial Trust Fund, set up by Portland businessman J.B. Brown to honor his son, is out of money.

The cause is a combination of low interest rates and high silver prices. The original endowment of $5,000 is exhausted, and the current cost of striking the 10 medals is about $3,000.

Lee-Winship would like to start a drive to replenish the fund and make sure the medals are handed out. With 10 winners a year — five boys and five girls — she said there probably are other past recipients who have the means to make sure the tradition continues.

“We honor leadership and character” with other awards, Lee-Winship said. “This is purely about what you achieve in the classroom, and very few awards today are just about that.”

The trust originally was funded with five $1,000 state bonds, paying 6 percent a year. That meant the trust fund generated $300 a year, plenty for 10 medals.

But with silver now commanding about $35 a ounce — Lee-Winship said each medal probably contains an ounce or two — the cost of buying raw material and striking the medals is about $300 each.

Lee-Winship said the proceeds from the fund have been augmented in recent years with other revenue, such as some proceeds from vending machines in the school. But it’s not enough to buy the medals this year.

Peter Gribbin said he still recalls the excitement he felt at winning a Brown Memorial Medal when his high school class graduated in 1957.

The list of medal recipients is supposed to be kept secret until graduation, so Gribbin said he didn’t know until the ribbon bearing the medal was draped around his neck that he had won. He had the fifth-highest GPA among the boys in his class that year, he said.

“It’s the longest tradition we have here,” said Gribbin, who is the public address announcer at Portland High football and basketball games. “What a horrible thing this would be if they’re not able to give the Brown Medals.”

Gribbin, a retired Portland High teacher, said a past winner once called to ask about donating his medal back to the school, but wanted to make sure he got a receipt noting the value, probably for tax purposes. He said $5,000 seemed like a fair amount.

“I said, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” Gribbin said. “The guy decided not to turn the medal over to us.”

Gribbin said many medal winners remain so proud of their achievement throughout their lives that it’s not unusual to see it noted in obituaries.

Lee-Winship said she can’t even contemplate not awarding the medals to this year’s top students.

“They just have to be given,” she said. “For us, there is no compromise here.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at [email protected]