PORTLAND – Donations from alumni and past winners of Portland High School’s Brown Memorial Medal will enable the school to present 10 of the silver medals to top seniors this year, and continue a tradition that dates back to 1865.

The awards were in jeopardy because the endowment for the medals, originally $5,000, had been exhausted and silver prices had raised the cost of the medals.

The school needed $3,000 this year to continue handing out Brown medals — five to the top female seniors and five to the top male seniors, based on grade-point averages.

Ericka Lee-Winship, a Portland High teacher who won a Brown medal in 1991, sounded the alarm last month. The Portland Press Herald published the story on March 30, and Lee-Winship got a call at 6:45 that morning from an anonymous donor who asked to meet her at the school.

She said the donor handed her a check for $1,000.

Donations have rolled in since then, and now total $5,000.

Joe Delogu, a Portland High alumnus, has pledged to match this year’s donations up to $10,000, and donations over the next five years up to $25,000, Lee-Winship said.

She said she might have some of this year’s winners — the honorees are kept secret until graduation day — in her Advanced Placement U.S. history class, and it pained her to think they might not get medals.

“They’re great kids and they work so hard and I thought, ‘We’ve got to make sure we continue the Brown medals,’ ” she said.

Lee-Winship said she likes the fact that the medals are given solely for classroom performance, not participation in sports or any other activities. She also likes the fact that 10 students are honored, going beyond the top two or three in the senior class.

Lee-Winship said she’s gratified, but not totally surprised, by the response of the school’s alumni and others in the community.

“I thought that people would think, ‘Oh gosh, we’ve got to do something about this,’ ” she said.

She said one family made a donation in lieu of Mother’s Day gifts because the mother in the family is a past winner.

Peter Gribbin, a former Portland High teacher who won a Brown medal in 1957, said he’s trying to find out whether the medals can be produced at a lower cost so the donations will go farther.

With low interest rates in recent years, the original endowment wasn’t generating as much money as it used to — 6 percent when Portland businessman J.B. Brown established the medals to honor his son — so the fund eventually ran dry.

But Gribbin said high silver prices aren’t the primary reason the medals cost about $300 each.

He said he went to a gold-and-silver dealer after Lee-Winship launched the effort to raise money and found out that the silver in the medals is worth only $23.

The medals are slightly larger than a half-dollar coin and stamped with the image of James Alcott Brown and the date of his death — Aug. 15, 1864 — on the front. On the back, each medal says “presented to,” then a space where the school has winners’ names engraved, with “Portland High School” along the bottom.

Gribbin said that in the first few years the awards were given, the medals were struck by the U.S. mint in Philadelphia.

Today, City Hall handles the procurement of the medals, Gribbin said. He’s trying to find out who makes them, but the person who takes care of that is on vacation.

Gribbin said he thinks the cost of the medals could be reduced, which would extend the generosity of the donors.

The amount raised so far “gets us through another couple of years,” he said, “but we want to think longer term than that.”

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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