A tuna biologist from Monterey, a voting rights attorney from Fremont, a social historian from San Francisco and a playwright who distilled all the voices of the Los Angeles riots into one compelling drama felt the touch of a magic financial wand Monday.
Once again, a new crop of MacArthur Fellowships--the coveted, six-figure financial awards that carry no criteria or parameters--have been bestowed upon an eclectic group of thinkers, scholars and artists.
A total of 21 people--including the four Californians--were selected for their original, often unusual, sometimes noble work--and the rest of those who secretly fancy themselves as candidates for the prestigious prize must wait another year.
The awards from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that have come to signify creative, often quirky, brilliance went to people who range from astronomer to archeologist, historian to a married couple who won a joint prize for their work as dancers. The recipients can do as they please with the money.
Perahps the best known of the 21 winners is nationally acclaimed playwright and performer Anna Deaveare Smith, who lives in San Francisco and won $280,000.
As usual, award winners were caught off guard going about their business when news of the secretive selection process was delivered last week. Smith was in New Haven, Conn., rushing off for her daily swim before a performance of her one-woman play "Twilight," about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when she got the news from Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a MacArthur Foundation board member.
"Honey, you got a MacArthur," the board member told Smith.
"It was really one of those moments of, 'Am I awake or am I dreaming?' " recalled Smith, 45, who also teaches at Stanford University. "It's a tremendous honor. Whenever I've noticed that someone got a MacArthur, I've always thought, 'Wow.' "
For some, it's not just a pleasant surprise, it's manna from heaven. It's rent money.
"I was really discouraged about where I could get continuing money to do my work," said 49-year-old Allan Berube, an independent historian based in San Francisco. "Everything is drying up. And I don't have the degrees."
Berube, who dropped out of undergraduate work at the University of Chicago in 1968, studies multiracial working-class gay activism. "There's not a market for that," he added ruefully.
Then he got the call last week: $300,000.
"I screamed and then I giggled and I cried, and then I screamed some more," he said, still laughing. "Financially I was on a sinking ship, and I got rescued."
Berube has garnered some attention already. His book "Coming Out Under Fire," a history of gay men and women in World War II, was the basis for an award-winning documentary. He has a minuscule advance for another book. Berube's history lessons get dispensed via slide shows into communities and church groups and labor unions. A current project looks at the marine cooks and stewards union that serviced the passenger ships in the 1930s and '50s and had changed from a white union into one "that was mostly men of color, progressive and mostly gay."
Like Berube, MacArthur winner Joaquin Avila, who specializes in voting rights law, was fighting his own financial struggles. You might say it was a sweet coincidence that he got the call as he sat hunkered over his bills at his office desk, except that most days find him poring over his bills.
The foundation called him once and left a message that his answering machine didn't catch. (He'll be spending some of the money to get a new machine.) The second message urgently requested he call back. When he did, he found out he'd been awarded $295,000.
"I can't even think of the words. It's beyond elation," said the 47-year-old Fremont attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School and hasn't been paid a legal fee since 1994. He helps support himself with a business for color-printing office and courtroom exhibits.
"I had been under very substantial financial pressures. The kind of work I'm involved in is very expensive. All I do are actions to enforce the federal voting rights act . . . Instead of focusing on the day-to-day financial worries, I can focus on my practice."
In Monterey, 38-year-old Barbara Block wants to use her $245,000 grant to aid her research on tuna, swordfish and marlin, all of which are migratory fish.
Block got the news while attending a conference in the Azores last week. "I was astonished," she said.
Block is assistant professor of biological sciences and director of the Tuna Research and Conservation Center at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station on Monterey Bay.
"We have the largest and only research population of tuna," she said of the center that is a joint venture of Stanford and the Monterey Aquarium. "This will ease the funding to support the research in tuna biology and conservation."
The scientist who has devoted her career to tuna won't comment on whether she eats the fish.