There's something funny about a new set of scholarships at the University of Portland, starting with the name: the Brian Doyle Scholarships for Gentle & Sidelong Humor.
The awards will go to undergraduates at the Roman Catholic institution who propose projects—such as films, comic books, essays, or performances—that make people laugh and draw them together.
Brian Doyle, the writer for whom the scholarships are named, is amused by their amounts. "This guy's gift was $9,999.99 for three scholarships of $3,333.33 each," he says. "I feel like sending him a penny. Round it off, for God's sake."
The "guy" behind the scholarships is John C. Beckman, who donated the money along with his wife, Patricia. The couple are 1942 graduates of the university, and Mr. Beckman is an admirer of Mr. Doyle, a poet and author who edits the university's Portland Magazine. Mr. Doyle's essays casually expose the humor lurking in such unlikely topics as divorce, infidelity, and terrorism.
"Humor is a great way to deflate pomposity," Mr. Doyle says. Cultural discourse is too often confrontational and partisan, he says. "Humor is a great way to slide sideways and find ways into things." He cites Mark Twain as an inspiration.
Mr. Beckman, 92, credits a man who lived not long after Twain for the couple's decision to give $9,999.99. More than 70 years ago at the University of Portland, a math teacher named Brother Godfrey demonstrated to Mr. Beckman "the peculiarities of the number 9," and the lessons lingered. For example, if a number is divisible by 9, the sum of its digits will be also be divisible by 9. "It prompted me eventually to adopt the number 3 as a stepchild because it is the square root of 9," he wrote in an e-mail message. "I wanted to attract attention to the scholarships, and using a different number from the ordinary helps to do that."
He also wanted to ease the burden on students who know financial hardship. Mr. Beckman recalls that he was suspended from prep school and from the university more than once for his inability to pay tuition.
Bryce Majors, assistant director of financial aid, says the scholarships will be awarded based on academics, financial need, and loan debt. "Humor is a requirement to be evaluated for the scholarship," he says, but the winner won't necessarily be the student with the funniest idea.
Applications are due by the end of May. Mr. Beckman has specified that applicants' projects be "witty, not vulgar," and that the recipients make "a substantive effort" to share their creations publicly on the campus.
The Beckmans and their estate will cover the annual cost of the scholarships as long as is needed, says Mr. Doyle, but he hopes that others will chip in. "Even I threw in $100," he says, quickly acknowledging his blunder: A gift of $99.99 would have been way funnier.