The books that cover nearly every surface of the coffee table in Robert Gallucci’s spacious Loop office reveal a man with fascinatingly catholic interests: Classic American Cars. Chicago From the Sky: A Region Transformed. Wynton Marsalis: Jazz ABZ. Himalaya: Mountains of Life. It’s fitting, since Gallucci is the president of the MacArthur Foundation, most famous for awarding no-strings “genius grants” (this year in the amount of $625,000) to rising stars in a myriad of fields, from artists and musicians to geochemists, economists, and surgeons. “It’s not a reward for past behavior so much as it is an investment that this person is going to continue to be productive,” Gallucci explains, “and if given the award they’ll have a greater opportunity to do that.” The list of past recipients since the grants’ inception in 1981 includes paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, choreographer Twyla Tharp, and Chicago theater icon Mary Zimmerman, all of whom have gone on to widespread acclaim in their respective careers.

While the MacArthur Fellows Program (the genius grants’ official name) is the Foundation’s best-known initiative, the organization itself—whose stated mission is to build “a more just, verdant, and peaceful world”—impacts the city and the world on a much deeper level through its support of a variety of programs worldwide. Since 1978, the organization has invested nearly $1 billion in Chicago alone with grants supporting nearly 1,100 organizations in education, community development, juvenile justice, and more.

Considering that the Foundation’s mission is peace, Gallucci has spent much of his career preoccupied with war. As a high school student, he was given the book Diplomat Among Warriors by his older brother and found that he couldn’t put it down. “I ate it up,” enthuses the trim, silver-haired Gallucci. “I was fascinated with both conflict and war, and with the idea of doing something about it.” After studying political science at SUNY-Stony Brook (“I graduated in ’67, and ’68 is very often thought of the big year of the Vietnam War”) and earning master’s and doctorate degrees in politics from Brandeis University, Gallucci started teaching at Johns Hopkins University before leaving to join the State Department. “I wanted to see what it was like to be a practitioner, so I thought I’d try it for a few years and then come out.” A few years turned into 21, with Gallucci rising through the ranks to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Ambassador-at-Large for the US Department of State, and ultimately serving as a special envoy to deal with the threat of WMDs from 1998 to 2001. He then left for Georgetown University, where he served as Dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

The transition from WMDs to the MacArthur Foundation may seem drastic, but Gallucci doesn’t see it that way. “It wasn’t such a huge leap in my mind to become the leader of this great foundation, since my interest has always been in public policy of one kind or another, domestic or international.” And given Gallucci’s varied interests—be it the Himalayas or jazz or international affairs—the former academic and diplomat is right at home with the foundation’s kaleidoscope of projects. “[My career] has just been one wonderful opportunity following another,” says Gallucci. “It’s very hard for me to imagine anything more rewarding than what I’m doing now.”

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