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Pa. college awards student who demonstrates 'quirky brilliance' Salinger's dorm room

| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Copies of J.D. Salinger's classic novel 'The Catcher in the Rye' at the Orange Public Library in Orange Village, Ohio. Screenwriter Shane Salerno has taken on a surprising and news-making identity: the latest, and, apparently greatest seeker of clues about J.D. Salinger. Salerno is presenting his case in Salinger, a unique, 3-way project: A 700-page book, co-authored with David Shields; a theatrical release distributed by the Weinstein Company; and a TV documentary that will air on PBS in January 2014 as the 200th installment of “American Masters
A 1951 file photo shows J.D. Salinger, author of 'The Catcher in the Rye', 'Nine Stories', and 'Franny and Zooey.'

COLLEGEVILLE — Aspiring novelist Quinn Gilman-Forlini, an ardent admirer of “The Catcher in the Rye,” wouldn't mind following in its author's footsteps.

In fact, the Ursinus College junior already has: She lived in J.D. Salinger's cramped old dorm room.

“A lot of people say it's really small, but I just thought it was so charming ... (with) the slanted ceiling and this old radiator,” she said. “People come and knock on your door as a freshman wanting to meet you because you live there.”

Jerome David Salinger attended Ursinus for only a single semester in 1938. But his mystique has endured, a legacy now further fueled by Friday's release of “Salinger,” a film that attempts to shed light on the life of the intensely private man, who died in 2010.

A school directory indicates Salinger transferred from New York University to the small liberal arts campus in Collegeville, not far from Philadelphia. As a teen, he had spent time at the nearby Valley Forge Military Academy.

At Ursinus, Salinger wrote a feature called “J.D.S.'s The Skipped Diploma” for the student newspaper; most of the columns contained brief, unrelated items from cheeky observations to movie reviews. He also served as a drama critic, using the byline “Jerome Salinger” — and he was tough.

“Though undoubtedly guilty of too few rehearsals, the players nevertheless made a courageous attempt at salvaging most of the somewhat feeble (playwright's) humor,” Salinger wrote of one production.

He later dropped out and never earned any degree. Still, the Ursinus admissions office proudly displays a 1963 letter from Salinger that professes he looks back “with a great deal of pleasure” on his time at the school — and then asks the registrar to send a course catalog to his baby sitter.

Despite that fondness, the reclusive Salinger denied the use of his name in the scholarship that allows students like Gilman-Forlini to live in his room. After being contacted by the author's lawyers, the school renamed it the Creative Writing Award.

The prize, first given in 2007, goes to writers who display a “quirky brilliance,” unusual perspective or a strong voice — perhaps like that of Holden Caulfield, the rebellious teen narrator of “Catcher.” Winners get $30,000 per year toward the school's tuition of $44,350.

“There's plenty of scholarships for the brightest and most high-achieving students out there. We're looking for something a little different,” said English professor Jon Volkmer, who directs the creative writing program and helps choose the winner.

The recipient also gets to spend his or her first year in Curtis Hall's Room 300, a space just big enough for a single bed, desk and narrow dresser. (A plaque outside the doorway mistakenly says Salinger lived there in 1939; officials plan to replace it.)

Though there is only one winner each year, Volkmer said, the award has helped create a thriving community of writers on the leafy campus, which serves about 1,700 students. But not all of the recipients are necessarily Salinger fans or even end up pursuing the craft.

Current occupant Annie Rus, an 18-year-old from Parkton, Md., conceded she never finished “Catcher” but is enjoying “Franny and Zooey.” She is considering a major in history.

Maeve Sutherland, who graduated in 2012, said living in the room encouraged her to write more than she would have.

While she said the skill has led to big accomplishments, including an international academic fellowship, “I guess I wouldn't really call myself a creative writer anymore.”

Her dorm experience also coincided with Salinger's death at his New Hampshire home.

“We had a little memorial seance for him,” Sutherland said. “I felt like I was living with a ghost sometimes.”

Gilman-Forlini, 19, of Putnam Valley, N.Y., said she misses the third-story room and its view of tree-lined walkways below — the same landscape that she imagines Salinger looked down on 75 years ago.

She's among many die-hard fans eager to see the new documentary. Director Shane Salerno's decade-long project, which includes a 700-page companion biography, contends that unpublished Salinger material will be released, starting in 2015.

And though Gilman-Forlini isn't sure about her future career, she has diverged from the path taken by her favorite author just by starting her third year at Ursinus.

“I always say that I made it farther than J.D. Salinger did in college,” she said with a laugh. “So if I dropped out, it'd be OK.”

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