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The 'Genius Award' Winners : Five Southern Californians Ponder What They'll Do With Their MacArthur Fellowships

October 27, 1985|Dick Adler | Dick Adler is a Los Angeles writer.

The good news reached them all in different ways. Ed Hutchins was in a meeting of the Navy's Future Technologies Group in San Diego when somebody handed him a message that said that "the Mikado Foundation" had called. Not being a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, Hutchins didn't rush out to return the call--until his wife broke into the meeting with another message and the correct name.

The note waiting for John Benton when he arrived at his hotel in Paris said for him to call "the MacArthur Clinique." Benton, like most American academics, is perfectly familiar with the name and purpose of the MacArthur Foundation, but the "Clinique" part threw him. "I spent the next few hours, until it was morning in Chicago, trying to think why else they might be calling me."

Woodworker Sam Maloof's wife, who picks up the telephone at their Alta Loma home because he's usually up to his elbows in sawdust, listened in on the short conversation and came into his workshop with tears in her eyes. "I said to her: 'I just can't believe it, Freda. Why me?' And she said: 'Because you deserve it,' which I thought was really nice."

The news that finally came that June day to Hutchins, Benton, Maloof and two other Southern Californians--Jared Diamond and Shing-Tung Yau--was that they were part of the latest group of 25 MacArthur Foundation fellows, recipients of what the media--but definitely not the foundation--call the "Genius Awards." Once or twice a year since 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, endowed with the fortune that the late John D. made in the insurance business, has reached out and rewarded people who didn't even know they were being considered--because the nomination and selection process is kept secret. Along with 16 other men and four women across the country, the five fellows from this area have each been given, for the next five years, tax-free stipends of between $24,000 to $60,000 a year (in general, the older the recipient, the more he or she receives), with no strings attached. Maloof will receive $60,000 a year; Benton, $51,200; Yau, $37,600; Hutchins, $38,400, and Diamond, $46,400.

The MacArthur Fellowships are known for the wide range of talents they encourage, and this year's crop is especially eclectic. It includes two modern-dance choreographers, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham; the founder of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Robert Hayes; a Russian-born political activist, Valery Chalidze; a poet, John Ashbery ; a pioneer off-Broadway producer, Ellen Stewart ; the president of the Children's Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, and an expert on underwater archeology in the Caribbean, J. Richard Steffy.

Diversity also marks the new fellows from Southern California. They are definitely not five people whose paths would be likely to cross. Maloof, 69, is a craftsman whose works are treasured by those lucky enough to own them; he has been making and selling his famous rocking chairs and other pieces of furniture for almost 40 years. Benton, 54, is a professor of medieval history at Caltech who doesn't believe in living in the past; he thinks he caught the foundation's eye when he used space cameras at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to examine ancient manuscripts. Diamond, 47, is an expert on bird life and ecology in New Guinea and other islands; he also advises countries on where to build nature preserves. Yau, 36, is a mathematician who specializes in expanding the usefulness of differential geometry. Hutchins, also 36, combines anthropology and cognitive science to demonstrate that primitive cultures use the same logic and reasoning as civilized ones.

But they also have several things in common. Except for Maloof--who has done his share of teaching around the world--they all currently have university connections. Benton's MacArthur Fellowship is the fourth awarded to a Caltech faculty member since 1981; Diamond is a professor of physiology at UCLA, and Hutchins and Yau are on the UC San Diego faculty. They have all broken theoretical or practical ground, expanding the scope of their areas with healthy bouts of fieldwork or experimentation. And all five seem to be content and successful in their chosen fields--not the sort of recipients whose lives would be drastically changed by a sudden windfall.

The stated purpose of a MacArthur Fellowship is to provide "a period of greater freedom from financial and institutional constraints during which you may devote yourself more fully to your own creative endeavors." All five men have now had several months to consider just what that might mean in their particular cases.

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