CHICAGO: Mandolin player and composer Chris Thile learned the hard way that when you get a call from the 312 area code this time of year, you should probably answer the phone.
Thile is among 23 recipients of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants,” which are given in a secrecy-shrouded process. Winners have no idea they’ve been nominated for the $500,000 awards until they get the call, and nominators must remain anonymous.
Thile ignored the incessant phone calls from the foundation at first, thinking they were election-year robocalls.
His tour manager searched for the number online and told him, “It appears to be from something called the MacArthur Foundation.”
“I think I must have turned white,” Thile said. “ … I thought, ‘Oh my God, did I win a MacArthur?’ ”
The grants, paid over five years, give recipients freedom to pursue a creative vision. Winners, who work in fields ranging from medicine and science to the arts and journalism, don’t have to report how they spend the money.
Thile, who played with Nickel Creek and is now touring with Punch Brothers, said he may use the grant to fund a chamber music project for a bluegrass quintet.
Northwestern University historian Dylan C. Penningroth said he now can expand his search for court records of property owned by slaves in the pre-Civil War South.
There have been 873 winners so far in the grant’s history. Other winners this year include:
• Raj Chetty, 33, Cambridge, Mass. Economist at Harvard University who studies how policy decisions affect real-world behavior.
• David Finkel, 56, Washington, D.C. Washington Post journalist whose long-form newswriting has transformed readers’ understanding of military service and sacrifice.
• Sarkis Mazmanian, 39, Pasadena, Calif. Medical microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology who studies the role intestinal bacteria may play in a broad range of human diseases.
• Nancy Rabalais, 62, Chauvin, La. Marine ecologist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium who documents the environmental and economic consequences of Gulf of Mexico dead zones.