On June 14, 2000, poet and teacher Lucilla Perillo (1958-2016) receives a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, also known as a "genius grant," one of the nation's most prestigious awards. Perillo is an associate professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University, and each weekend flies home to Olympia, Thurston County, to join her husband James Rudy. She is one of 25 people in 2000 to receive MacArthur fellowships, which since 1981 have been awarded annually.
The Phone Rang
Born in Manhattan, Lucia Perillo started her career in wildlife management with jobs in several western states, but a poetry workshop at San Jose State University in California changed the trajectory of her career. She returned to college to earn a master's degree in English and then taught creative writing at several colleges and universities. At one point, she was also a part-time ranger at Mount Rainier National Park. In 1988, when she was 30 years old, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
In 2000, Perillo had just made an extremely difficult decision. Twelve years after the diagnosis, she was finding it harder to teach creative writing at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale during the week and then fly home on the weekends to be with her husband in Olympia, as she had been doing since 1991. She decided to quit her Midwest teaching post and return to writing full-time from the comfort of her home. That June, as she was scrubbing her bathroom in preparation for vacating her house in Carbondale, the phone rang. It was the MacArthur Foundation.
"The conversation was brief and mysterious. Then, while Ms. Perillo waited for her husband, James Rudy, the thought occurred to her: maybe she would give the money away. She and her husband needed money, but they had friends who needed it more.
"'I had heard of the MacArthur fellowship ... But I think I'm stupid, so I don't think of myself as MacArthur material ... I have that -- what do you call it -- that imposter syndrome. I always feel that my life is something that I've stumbled into and am undeserving of'" (Scott).
Perillo's fateful phone call came the week before the MacArthur fellowships for 2000 were actually awarded (adding to the drama of the surprise phone calls to recipients, "the foundation swore them to secrecy" until the public announcement [Scott]). The formal award of the 25 fellowships was made on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.
John and Catherine MacArthur
John MacArthur was a businessman and sole owner of Bankers Life & Casualty Company, a Chicago-based firm he purchased in the 1930s. He had other businesses, as well, and numerous real-estate holdings around the country. MacArthur and his second wife Catherine created the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1970. After John MacArthur's death in 1978, foundation board member William T. Kirby convinced the other board members to set money aside to allow truly outstanding individuals the freedom to think and create with no strings attached. Since the program began in 1981, more than a thousand people have been named MacArthur fellows. Despite her misgivings, Perillo was definitely MacArthur material.
"Perillo suffered from multiple sclerosis ... and wrote about her condition in poems and essays that were matter-of-fact, laced with dark humor, and brave. 'Exhilarating but also heartbreaking,' said Joseph Bednarik, the co-publisher of Copper Canyon Press. 'She was a genius inside a body that was not cooperating'" (Baker).
The MacArthur selection process is shrouded in secrecy. Applications are not sought nor accepted. In most cases, the awardees do not even know they are under consideration. Several hundred "talent scouts" scour the nation searching for individuals who exhibit exceptional creativity and have the potential to continue to create a significant body of work. From a pool of about 2,000 nominees, typically 20 to 30 fellows are announced each year.
"'The announcement of new fellows serves to remind us of the importance of talented individuals in the quest for a more just, beautiful and humane world at peace,' foundation president Jonathan Fanton said. 'Their scholarship, artistic accomplishments and public service celebrate creativity across the broad range of human endeavor'" (Tejeda).
Caught by Surprise
After the decisions are made, each fellow receives a phone call from someone in the MacArthur organization. "It is the first and only call we make to them, and it can be life changing," according to Daniel J. Socolow, director of the Foundation's fellows program (Jarvis). Most are caught completely by surprise, just as Perillo was. Gary Urton of Colgate University, who was also selected in 2000, was mowing his lawn.
"His son Jason actually answered the phone, and Urton asked him to take a message. Jason came back outside and said, 'The man on the telephone said this is one call you're going to be glad you answered.' Upon hearing that he was being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and a stipend of $500,000, Urton said, 'My knees began shaking and I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, completely speechless'" (Jarvis).
Bioengineer Jim Collins, a 2003 recipient, was skeptical when he received his phone call.
"The person on the other end of the line asked if I was Jim Collins and if I was alone. For a moment, I thought I was receiving an obscene phone call. The caller then told me I had been selected as a MacArthur fellow. I laughed, convinced this was another well-orchestrated prank by one of my former college roommates. The caller tried to reassure me, and eventually gave me a number to call to confirm the award" (Estes).
In the class of 2000, another Northwest resident was selected: Susan Sygall of Eugene, Oregon. Sygall, who is confined to a wheelchair, was named a MacArthur Fellow in recognition of her work with Mobility International USA, which assists women with disabilities.
Awardees Clustered on the Coasts
Perillo was the only recipient with Washington connections in 2000 but, since the program's inception, 12 people born in the state have received a MacArthur "genius" grant, while 19 others were residing in the state at the time of their awards. In addition to Perillo, three Washingtonians who received the award were poets: Richard Kenney in 1987, Linda Bierds in 1998, and Heather McHugh in 2009, all connected with the University of Washington.
Not surprisingly, the states with the highest numbers of awardees are California and New York. In a somewhat sarcastic "assessment" published on Slate in 2000, David Plotz wrote:
"New Yorkers and San Franciscans act like they're the most interesting people in the world. MacArthur agrees with them. Fully one-sixth of all MacArthurs live in Manhattan, and nearly as many live in the Bay Area ... No matter what, don't live in the South. Southerners rarely qualify as geniuses unless they're sensitive writers or colorful advocates for the poor ... The Great Plains and Rockies are equally inhospitable to genius: You're unlikely to win unless you've started a bank or college on an Indian reservation" (Plotz).
Plotz went on to offer additional advice for MacArthur hopefuls, which included: Be a professor. If you'd don't want to teach college, make art. Do not work for the government or the private sector. Be left wing. Be slightly, but not dangerously, quirky.
Following her receipt of the MacArthur fellowship, Lucia Perillo continued to write and publish, and to receive additional acclaim and awards -- including a prize of $100,000 that accompanied the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award from Claremont Graduate University for her 2005 book Luck is Luck. By the time she died at age 58 in 2016 at her home in Olympia, she had published a total of seven critically acclaimed volumes of poetry, a collection of essays, and a book of short stories.