The annual duck celebration in Stuttgart, Ark., was winding down -- the Queen Mallard beauty pageant was over and the world's best duck dog had been determined. Then Daniel Duke stepped onto the Main Street stage.
Duke, a teenage veteran of more than a dozen duck-calling contests, wowed the judges with his renditions of the four required blasts: hail, feed, comeback and mating. Duke, from the nearby town of Brinkley, triumphed -- and bagged one of the nation's more unusual college scholarships.
"I knew I had a shot at it," the 19-year-old said of the $1,500 award, which he hopes to use to attend the University of Arkansas. "And I think it's pretty great you can get a scholarship for calling ducks."
Others might, too.
With the cost of a college education rising relentlessly, students are scrambling for scholarships. Some win awards based on financial need or exceptional smarts. Some are gifted athletes. Others get help from foundations, companies or service clubs.
But some, like Duke, are able to snag scholarships because of less conventional talents, interests or physical attributes.
For certain scholarships, for instance, it might be helpful to be tall or left-handed, short or heavy. Or to be skilled at designing and crafting stylish garments made of wool -- or duct tape. Or to be deeply interested in the study of water bugs or winemaking, funerals or fungus.
Each issue, each interest, it seems, has its own awards.
There are scholarships for welders, fly fishers and pie makers, for golf caddies and skateboarders. There is one for pagans and another for parapsychologists. There is even one sponsored by fans of Klingons, the fictional bumpy-headed aliens of "Star Trek" fame.
One endowment fund is for needy music students who can sing or play the national anthem "with sincerity." Another seeks clean-living young people who do "not participate in strenuous athletic contests." (An occasional Frisbee toss is probably OK, its gatekeepers say.)
"Some of these [scholarships] are so specific, it's like you're going to find one that says the kid has to have one brown eye and one blue eye," said Delisa Falks, associate director of financial aid at Texas A&M University. Even at that, she added, chuckling, "you probably could."
Such offbeat scholarships, privately funded and often from bequests, tend to be small, bringing a recipient anywhere from $500 to a few thousand dollars.
Some high school counselors say the awards are hardly worth the trouble and encourage students to focus instead on more traditional grants.
But others say a few thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at, especially for what, in some cases, may amount to an hour or two of effort. And right now, the experts say, is an excellent time for next year's high school seniors to launch their search.
Even the quirkiest scholarships "help reduce a student's loan indebtedness and are a great way for them to be recognized for their talents and abilities," said David S. Levy, director of financial aid at Caltech.
Tiffany Chioma Anaebere, for example, was online one night last year while she was a senior at King-Drew Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles. She happened upon a scholarship for tall kids. Anaebere, who stands 5 feet 11, figured she had a chance. The minimum for female applicants was 5 feet 10 and, for males, 6 feet.
She got in touch with the scholarship's local sponsor, the California Tip Toppers Club ("World's Highest Society"), filled out the application -- including a shortish essay on being tall -- and fired it off. She won, earning $1,000 to help pay her way at Stanford University.
Anaebere, who just completed her freshman year, said the award was not the largest she won. Yet it came in handy, she said, and she gets a kick out of telling her college friends about it.
"It was definitely the oddest one I got," said Anaebere, 18. "It really fits the mold of being able to win a scholarship for almost anything."
In Stuttgart, billed as the "Rice and Duck Capital of the World," Pat Peacock helps organize both the town's annual duck fest and the contest named after her stepfather and mother, Chick and Sophie Major. The 30-year-old scholarship, Peacock says, is for duck-calling high school seniors with any higher education plans, whether university or barber college.
Duke, the 2003 winner, wants to study agricultural business. But first, he hopes to do a little duck-hunting.
At Juniata College in Pennsylvania, left-handers are in luck. A 1922 graduate who met her future husband, a fellow lefty, when they were paired in a tennis class bequeathed $24,000 to the college to establish a scholarship in their name.
Since the Frederick and Mary F. Beckley award was first given in 1979, at least one student a year has received it and sometimes as many as five, Juniata officials said. It is usually worth about $1,000 a year to each recipient.