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It Pays To Be Smart (& Different)

Reginald Robinson first heard ragtime during a school assembly when he was 13. He pestered his mother for a piano, and was soon trying to replicate the sound on a tiny Casio keyboard.

"A lot of people say, 'You should leave that ragtime alone - go and play some jazz,"' said Robinson, now a 31-year-old ragtime composer, researcher and performer. "My heart is in ragtime. I love this music. I think it's forgotten, and it's really a dying art."

The self-taught Chicago pianist's effort to keep the uniquely American music style alive earned him one of this year's 23 MacArthur Foundation "genius grants" - $500,000 awards that the recipients can use however they wish.

Other grant recipients announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation include a high school debate coach, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Aminah Robinson, 64, of Columbus, Ohio. She is a folk artist, visual historian and storyteller who focuses on her childhood neighborhood in Columbus.

For Reginald Robinson, the grant will mean less time worrying about how to pay the bills and more time touring.

He plays a variety of music, but the joy comes through when he talks about ragtime - a style of music that was popular in the early 20th century and is distinguished by its heavily syncopated melody.

Once, he drove to Tennessee to study a photo of ragtime legend Scott Joplin because a previously unknown fragment of music Joplin composed was visible on the piano.

"As far as staying with ragtime, a lot of people thought it was just a passing phase - just like certain dolls and toys you played with," he said. "I remember saying, 'This is not a passing phase,' at age 14."

When Rueben Martinez, another MacArthur Foundation recipient, was a child, he lived in a town without a public library and with parents who didn't read to him.

Still, Martinez's teachers inspired a love of literature, and when he became a barber in the Los Angeles area, he provided books for customers to read.

Noticing the books he lent out were rarely returned to him, Martinez started selling books in his barber shop. Now, his Santa Ana, Calif., bookstore - called Libreria Martinez Books and Art Gallery - is among the largest commercial sellers of Spanish-language books in the country.

Martinez, 64, regularly tours schools and appears on Spanish-language television, urging parents to read to their children, and his shop serves as a touchstone for community activities promoting literacy.

"I made more money cutting hair than selling books," said Martinez. "But the joy of my life is what I'm doing now."

James Carpenter, 55, of New York, was recognized for his work expanding the artistic and technical potential of glass. He helped design a partially transparent exterior for the new Seven World Trade Center, a smaller building that collapsed following the twin towers after Sept. 11.

Chicago writer Aleksandar Hemon, another grant recipient, was in the United States on a student visa when the Bosnian War prevented him from returning home to Sarajevo. While here, he created two acclaimed collections of short stories in English, a language he had hardly written in before 1992.

With the grant, Hemon said, "I can take my time writing a book exactly the way I want to. Shape it to the smallest detail. ... I can organize my life around writing and finishing the book, not about earning a living."

Another MacArthur fellow, David Green, 48, of Berkeley, Calif., works to make health care products affordable in developing countries by organizing engineers, distribution experts, financiers and technical experts - work he calls "compassionate capitalism." His latest project is an inexpensive hearing aid.

"I think the only other person in the world who calls me a genius is my husband, and I think he's prejudiced," said another fellow, Katherine Gottlieb, 52, who runs a nonprofit health management corporation for 46,000 Native Alaskans and American Indians living in the Anchorage area.

Dr. Gretchen Berland received a grant for her decision to combine her current career as a physician with her previous experience making documentaries. For a project called "Rolling," she provided cameras to several people who use wheelchairs.

"To receive a phone call like that saying we believe in you and we believe in your work - it doesn't happen very often," Berland said. "It was the gift of a lifetime."

Other MacArthur fellows include novelist Edward P. Jones, 53, of Arlington, Va., whose book about a black slave owner, "The Known World," won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

By Tara Burghart