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At last, that half-million dollar phone call

Susan Notes: Toward the end of this happy story, David Macaulay is asked why he moved his studio and family to Vermont. Answer? "Public schools."

By Tim Johnson

When the phone rang a week ago Monday morning, David Macaulay was in his studio in Norwich, and his wife, Ruthie Murray, was downstairs. She picked up right before him, and then, with both of them on the line, the voice at the other end asked:

"Mr. Macaulay, are we alone?"

That annoyed Murray and she hung up. A few minutes later, her husband came downstairs and she asked who had been on the phone.

Macaulay told her it was someone who was giving them a half-million dollars, someone from the MacArthur Foundation.

"She forgave him," Macaulay said about the cryptic caller.

Macaulay, 59, a prolific author and illustrator who moved with his family to Norwich in July, has been named one of 25 MacArthur fellows for 2006. Few national honors are more coveted, or more difficult to acquire. The nomination process is secret, and the selectees have no inkling they've been chosen -- until that phone call comes, out of the blue.

Since 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation annually has selected 20-25 fellows for their creativity and originality in an array of fields. Each fellow receives a no-strings-attached grant.

Nominations are made by a pool of undisclosed people. From several hundred nominations each year, a Selection Committee -- the 12 members of which are also undisclosed -- chooses the year's fellows. Their names were publicly withheld until today.

Besides Macaulay, other fellows include a jazz violinist, a developmental biologist, a narrative journalist, a sculptor and a cosmologist.

Macaulay's focus as an author-illustrator began with the monumental. "Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction," his first book, was published in 1973. It explains how an imagined Gothic cathedral was built step by step, carrying the reader through a series of intricate, black-and-white illustrations. "Cathedral" was followed by "City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction"; "Pyramid"; and "Underground," which prompted this rave from Harper's Bookletter: "David Macaulay is the Lewis Carroll of architecture."

Only later did Macaulay's domain expand to the mundane. "The Way Things Work" (1988) explains and depicts all manner of things, from nail clippers and window shades.

Among his more recent books are "Ship" (1993), "Building Big" (2000) and "Mosque" (2004), which takes a similar approach to "Cathedral" in detailing a construction project under the Ottoman Empire.

Born in Burton-on-Trent, England, Macaulay moved with his parents to New Jersey when he was 11. His father was in the textile business, and part of Macaulay's interest in how things work derives from his exposure to the machinery with which his father worked. He received a B.Arch. degree in 1969 from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he taught until recently as an adjunct member of the Department of Illustration. He has spent most of his career as a freelance writer and illustrator, but in the 1970s, he also worked as an interior designer and a high school art teacher.

Macaulay said the MacArthur designation, "a tremendous show of encouragement," couldn't have come at a better time. He's been working for more than four years on perhaps his most challenging project -- "The Way We Work," about the human body, which has obliged him to learn about things "so out of my realm of knowledge." It's taken longer than he foresaw, and he exhausted his book advance a year-and-a-half ago, so the MacArthur money will do quite nicely.

Macaulay had lived in Bristol, R.I., since 1997. What brought them to Norwich?

"The public schools," he replied. He said his children, age 7 and 9, never walked to school before, and now they look forward to going every day.

When that phone call came, the voice on the other end asked if Macaulay had ever heard of the MacArthur Foundation.

Oh yes, he had. He had even dared to hope that he'd be chosen by that foundation.

"I wanted to say, I've been lighting candles to it," Macaulay said.

— Tim Johnson
Burlington Free Press


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