Michael M. Rea established the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1986, at that time the only literary award in the United States focusing exclusively on that genre. Aware that the short story was a long-neglected art form in the world of literature and publishing, he felt that it needed revitalizing. As he said in an interview with Connecticut’s Litchfield County Times, “the basic thrust of the award is to foster a literary cause – to ennoble the form, to give it prestige.” The recipient of the Rea Award is nominated and selected by a jury of three, each a notable literary figure.
To administer the annual award, Michael Rea established the Dungannon Foundation. The prize originally was $25,000 and is now $30,000. The Rea Award for the Short Story is not given for a specific title, but rather for literary power, originality, and influence on the genre, to honor a writer who has made a significant contribution to the short story form. To qualify, a candidate must be a U.S. or Canadian citizen. Michael Rea traced his love of the short story back to his Irish forebears. “The Irish were great storytellers,” he said. The Dungannon Foundation is named for his paternal hometown in Northern Ireland.
Born on 19 January 1927, he was the son of Henry Oliver Rea and Margaret Moorhead of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From 1948 to 1952 he attended the University of Virginia, graduating with a B.A. in English. From 1952 to 1969 he was vice president of Oliver Tyrone Corporation, a family real estate firm in Pittsburgh. From 1970 to 1979 he was active in real estate in the Washington, D.C. area. There he later founded Harrea Broadcasting, which owned and operated radio stations in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1980 he moved to New York City and subsequently bought a home in Washington, Connecticut, which became his primary residence. From that time on, he immersed himself in art and rare-book collecting and publishing. His library includes several hundred volumes of first-edition short story collections.
In 1986, the first recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story was Cynthia Ozick. Since then, the following writers, each nominated by a different panel of panel of jurors, have won the Rea Award: Robert Coover (1987), Donald Barthelme (1988), Tobias Wolff (1989), Joyce Carol Oates (1990), Paul Bowles (1991), Eudora Welty (1992), Grace Paley (1993), Tillie Olsen (1994), Richard Ford (1995), Andre Dubus (1996), and Gina Berriault (1997).
The jurors meet annually in New York City to select the winner. Except for the goal of excellence and the most general guidelines, Rea gave his jurors independence and, in fact, did not participate in the meetings and was not present at the judging process.When they had chosen a winner and notified Michael Rea, he joined them for a private luncheon celebration. During that luncheon, he would telephone the winner so he could personally break the news.