When the phone rang yet again, Lisa Delpit was annoyed. The computer in her office at Baltimore's Morgan State University had broken down and the specialist in multi-cultural education was working at home. "Yes?" she said impatiently.

"When I heard who was on the line, I fell silent. He said, 'I am used to silence. So I'll just keep talking.' And what he said stunned me."

The stunning news that came to Delpit, 38, as well as to 35 other professionals in fields as diverse as human rights, biomedicine, computer programming and choreography, was the award of a MacArthur Fellowship. These unconditional stipends, from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, range from $150,000 to $375,000 -- the older the recipient, the higher the grant -- and are distributed over five years.

"I cried. I was surprised, shocked and happy," said Sidney Wolfe, co-founder and director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group in Washington, a public advocacy organization that closely monitors the sale and use of drugs and medical devices.

"I am very excited," said Robert Woodson, 53, founder and president of the Washington-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a social work organization that assists poverty-stricken families to become self-sufficient and tackle such problems as inadequate housing, unemployment, crime and drugs. Woodson, who described himself as "a scribe who chronicles the experiences of the poor," was awarded $320,000.

Among the better-known winners of the so-called "genius" grants this year are writers Susan Sontag ($340,000) and Guy Davenport ($365,000), photographer Lee Friedlander ($330,000) and biologist Paul Ehrlich ($345,000). Like their 283 predecessors since 1981, none of the 1990 fellows applied to the foundation.

The standards for becoming a MacArthur Fellow are shrouded in secrecy. A group of about 100 experts "with good judgment and outreach" is drawn from a broad spectrum of disciplines, said Kenneth Hope, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program.

These experts, serving anonymously for a year to avoid any lobbying pressure, propose names of prospective fellows to a 13-member selection committee, which meets several times a year to review the nominations. After the review, the awards are approved by the foundation's board of directors.

"They can use the money for anything," said Hope. "They don't have to file any reports." The no-strings-attached nature of the awards is intended to give fellows financial freedom to be creative and focused in their pursuit of excellence without the mundane worries of having to earn a living. Past recipients of the award have been known to use the money to buy homes, take leaves of absence, travel and pay off debts.

"Since I love my work, I'll keep writing," said Wolfe of his $320,000 award, "but one specific thing I'll do differently is to buy a piano and resume piano lessons." The award, he said, will "help me pay off my debts and take care of my children's education." He also paid tribute to his fellow co-founder of the Health Research Group. "Without Ralph Nader," he said, "nothing would have been possible."

Wolfe, who has been instrumental in raising public awareness of the dangers of over-the-counter drugs and has written several consumer guides to medicine, expressed satisfaction that "the MacArthur Foundation, which can be considered a part of the establishment, has recognized the efforts of a group that is at odds with the establishment institutions."

Morgan State's Delpit, who was awarded $245,000, said, "At this point, I can justifiably say that I am not sure about how I'll spend the money." She said the award would give her "the flexibility to arrange for travel and day care for my daughter," who is 15 months old.

Delpit said she saw herself as "a conduit for the award to be used for education," and said she hoped "the award helps me to continue trying to give a voice to those people who are the least likely to be heard." Delpit said, "In the quest for multi-cultural education, university-based education research is not useful until teachers themselves get involved in conducting research and see other teachers as professional colleagues."

This year's youngest recipient is 35-year-old Michael Moschen, a New York-based performing artist whose work includes a wide range of experiments with objects and motions, incorporating elements of dance into sculpture.

The oldest 1990 MacArthur winner is George Vlastos, an 82-year-old retired Princeton University professor of philosophy and one of the world's leading authorities on Socrates. For Vlastos, who was awarded $375,000, the fellowship is not only a recognition of his work but also a well-timed windfall.

"It will help me financially, especially as retirement provides inadequate funds," he said yesterday. Vlastos, who taught at the University of California-Berkeley after his retirement from Princeton, said the award would help him "accept visiting professorships from various universities and write a sequel to my book" on Socrates, which Cambridge University Press will publish later this year.

"I live a very secluded and quiet life," he said. "At my age, I was pleasantly shocked to hear the news."

The other winners:

John Christian Bailar III, 57, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Faculty of Medicine, McGill University, Montreal. Bailar studies the problems of statistical representation and the responsibility of the editors of scientific journals ($340,000).

Martha Clarke, 46, of Sherman, Conn., a choreographer and theatrical conceptualizer whose work illustrates distinctive combinations of dance, drama, movement and history ($285,000).

Jacques d'Amboise, 55, founder and artistic director of the National Dance Institute in New York, who helps raise children's awareness of the arts ($330,000).

John C. Eaton, 55, professor of music and composition at Indiana University, Bloomington, whose operas, including "The Cry of Clytaemnestra" (1980) and "The Tempest" (1985), make extensive use of microtones and theatrical aspects ($330,000).

Charlotte J. Erickson, 66, Paul Mellon Professor of American history at Cambridge University, Great Britain. Erickson's historical studies of immigration and its underlying economic forces have illuminated an important chapter in American history ($375,000).

Margaret Joan Geller, 42, of Watertown, Mass., professor of astronomy at Harvard University. Geller studies the spatial distribution of galaxies and has contributed to the present understanding of the universe as lacking homogeneity ($265,000).

Jorie Graham, 40, professor in the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Graham, a poet in the metaphysical tradition, is the author of "Hybrids of Plants" (1980) and "The End of Beauty" (1987) ($255,000).

Patricia Hampl, 44, professor at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, a memoirist and poet. Hampl is the author of "A Romantic Education" (1981) ($275,000).

John Hollander, 60, of Woodbridge, Conn., A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of English at Yale University. Hollander has written several books of poetry and literary criticism including "Harp Lake" (1988) and "Melodious Guile" (1988) ($355,000).

Thomas Cleveland Holt, 47, professor of American and Caribbean history at the University of Chicago. Holt explores the issues of race and class in 19th- and 20th-century African American history ($290,000).

David Kazhdan, 44, of Brighton, Mass., professor of mathematics at Harvard University. Kazhdan is known for his contributions to the fields of algebraic geometry, number theory and finite groups ($275,000).

Calvin R. King, 37, of Aubrey, Ark., founder and director of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corp. King, a farmer, has assisted minority farmers in gaining access to credit and marketing support ($240,000).

M.A.R. Koehl, 41, professor of integrative biology at the University of California-Berkeley, who specializes in the adaptation of organisms to the environment and the physical principles governing evolution ($260,000).

Nancy Kopell, 47, professor of mathematics at Boston University, who uses mathematical analysis to reveal new principles of biological organization ($290,000).

Gary Paul Nabhan, 38, assistant director for research and collections at the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, who has contributed to the preservation of the genetic and cultural heritage of the Southwest ($245,000).

Sherry B. Ortner, 48, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Ortner's research includes social theory and feminist anthropological theory and the roles of religion and ritual in society ($295,000).

Otis Pitts Jr., 48, president of Tacolcy Economic Development Corp., Miami, whose work focuses on the revitalization of the Liberty City area of Miami by increasing the level of entrepreneurial activities and building low-income housing ($295,000).

Yvonne Rainer, 55, a New York-based independent performance artist and film director, whose films include "Kristina Talking Pictures" (1976), "The Man Who Envied Women" (1985) and the forthcoming "Privilege" ($330,000).

Michael S. Schudson, 43, of La Jolla, Calif., professor in the department of sociology and communications at the University of California-San Diego. Schudson studies the impact of the mass media on public and private life in the United States ($270,000).

Rebecca J. Scott, 39, professor of history at the University of Michigan, who specializes in the comparative history of slave emancipation in North and South America ($250,000).

Marc Shell, 43, professor in the department of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, whose studies involve interdisciplinary research in philosophy, economics, literary theory and psychoanalysis. His books include "The Economy of Literature" (1978) and "Money, Language and Thought" (1982) ($270,000).

Richard Stallman, 37, of Cambridge, Mass., an independent computer programmer and the founder of the Free Software Foundation, who is writing a new computer operating system ($240,000).

Guy Tudor, 55, of Forest Hills, N.Y., a freelance wildlife illustrator and researcher known for his field guides to neotropical birds and efforts to promote preservation ($330,000).

Maria Varela, 50, of La Puente, N.M., head of Rural Resources, a development organization that seeks to maintain the agricultural and cultural heritages of Hispanic and Indian communities in parts of New Mexico ($305,000).

Kent Whealy, 44, co-director of the Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa. Whealy helps preserve local genotypes and adaptations to sustain food production systems ($275,000).

Eric Wolf, 67, professor of anthropology at Lehman College, City University of New York. Wolf's work emphasizes global historical factors and trends and identifies socioeconomic forces across centuries and civilizations ($375,000).

Jose Fernando Zalaquett, 48, chair of the Chilean section of Amnesty International's board of directors, who writes on international human rights issues with several agencies including the Ford Foundation and Amnesty International ($295,000).