Whatever happened to our ‘old’ geniuses?

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 John Rich (Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

John Rich (Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

We tracked down some local MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipients from past years to find out what life is like after the shock wears off.

The MacArthur Foundation has given its “genius grants” to several locals, including a University of Pennsylvania physicist and an Allentown jazz saxophonist. We tracked down some “geniuses” from past years to find out what life is like after the shock wears off.

Drexel University’s John Rich got the MacArthur award in 2006 for his work studying the impact of trauma, violence, and adversity on young people in cities. Like other recipients, Rich had no idea the award was coming. 

“When the MacArthur foundation suddenly shined this light on the work, it got a different platform,” Rich said. “People’s ears were opened up to hear it in a different way. I feel tremendously grateful.”

Rich said that spotlight changed how he wrote about these issues. “It made me more acutely aware of how important it was for me to be able to represent the voices of young people who were affected by violence,” he said. “That my voice was going to be in there, but their voices were going to be the most critical part.”

He’s had some time to get used to all the attention. Other recent recipients, not so much.

Jacob Soll, a history professor at the University of Southern California, got the no-strings-attached, $500,000 award in 2011. At the time, he was living in West Philly and working at Rutgers-Camden. He told WHYY he was going to move to Greece for a few months, read books, and watch the sun set. In reality, he’s had about two weeks off since he got the award.

“I worked 18 hour days for months,” Soll said. “I’m still on the ongoing book tour. I haven’t had a moment to breathe. I’m going to Greece, not on vacation, but to present my work to Greek business leaders and the Greek government.”

Soll said he’s honored by all the attention — and happy about his new job that pays better — but he feels like he’s constantly trying to live up to people’s expectations.

“Whenever I give a paper, whenever I present something or write something, I feel such pressure that it has to be up to snuff,” he said. “Because there are always people shaking their heads going ‘oh, this guy didn’t deserve it.'”

Jeffrey Brenner can relate. He’s the executive director of the nonprofit Camden Coalition of Health Care Providers, and he won the award in 2013. “I think you feel a duty to do well by the recognition and to fulfill the honor that’s been bestowed,” Brenner said. “The award is not for a success you’ve already had. It’s for the expectation of success in the future.”

Brenner said the attention from the MacArthur award has helped the coalition bring in additional funding to hire more staffers and keep working towards its goals. Read more about his work here and here.

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