The phone was ringing in Gay McDougall's D.C. human rights office, and she was almost too jet-lagged to pick it up.

That's because she was fresh off a 30-hour plane ride. Quick trip to Japan and Korea to argue for reparations for women who were raped as teenagers by Japanese soldiers during World War II. Swing by Thailand: human rights conference, pushing for justice, peace and global benevolence.

Still, McDougall, head of the International Human Rights Law Group, answered the call.

"Gay?"

"Yes."

"I'm calling because you won a MacArthur Fellowship."

Exhaustion turned to euphoria, elation, explosive heart-beating, stomach-churning energy. McDougall will receive a $350,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as one of 32 fellows. The money for the so-called "genius awards" comes with no restrictions. For these world-changers who rarely accumulate large chunks of cash, it's like hitting the jackpot in Las Vegas.

Previous winners include Tim Berners-Lee, a developer of the World Wide Web; William McDonald, a fifth-generation cattle rancher; and David Foster Wallace, a pioneering literary journalist.

This year's MacArthur fellows, named yesterday, include a mathematician who studies knots, an expert on Native American languages and a Louisiana environmentalist who helps ordinary folks combat toxic chemicals. And no matter how they scored on their SATs or how many times they've influenced global policy, reactions after "the call" are never less than extraordinary.

Picture a man who spends his days worrying about the stupefying speed with which nuclear weapons can be launched. Imagine him getting, well, almost jiggy.

"I am normally a pretty reserved person," says Bruce Blair, a Brookings Institution foreign-policy analyst, whose voice is shaking as he recalls the phone call that told him he will receive $350,000 (the sum depends on the recipient's age). "I gather I was quite bowled over and excited and happy."

Others think the call is a prank.

"I was a little dubious," says a giggling David Levering Lewis, 63, a Rutgers professor of history and a scholar on race. "I have some pretty smart grad students. They love a hoax."

Not a hoax at all. There have been 563 fellowships awarded, totaling $176 million, since the program began in 1981. The foundation sees the award as a gift, for whatever the fellow thinks will advance his life. Many say the honor of the fellowship outweighs its monetary value. Others admit the money is a welcome prize.

"We're going to pay back taxes," says an elated Elizabeth Diller, who, with her husband and partner, Ricardo Scofidio, is getting a check for $375,000. They are New York architects who create groovy theater and public art that examines the relationship between culture and space. A recent theater project: "Jet Lag," the true story of a flying granny who kidnaps her grandson and zooms between New York and Amsterdam 167 times in six months. For years, Diller and Scofidio lived on pasta and canned sauce.

"I'm going to buy a grandfather clock," Sara Horowitz, 36, executive director of Working Today, says through a fuzzy cell phone. Her group promotes flexible employment in the work-like-a-dog '90s. She's on an elevator in Albany, N.Y., ready to lobby for workers to keep their benefits even if they change jobs.

"Maybe I'll even give myself a pension," the $275,000 grant winner adds, laughing. "Something I've never really had."

As McDougall scrambles to leave for Sierra Leone--where she is helping encourage the peace process after the country's bloody civil war--she reports that she hasn't had time to think about uses for the money.

But with her interests--she was on the front lines of the fight for South Africa's first all-races elections--she's sure it will further global justice.

McDougall, 51, who lives in Mount Pleasant, grew up in Atlanta when that city was at the center of the civil rights movement. With figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael hanging out in her neighborhood, she was quickly inspired to join picket lines and voter registration drives. Later, after she graduated from Yale Law School, her interests moved to the American-based anti-apartheid movement.

Today she trots the globe looking for human rights violations and works to bring peace after war, as she is doing in Sierra Leone, where a cease-fire began last month after eight years of fighting. "It's a war far worse than Kosovo," she says, adding that someone should care.

Caring and a healthy dose of fear that the world would end brought Blair to his cause: trying to persuade the government to take strategic missiles off alert so they can't be launched as quickly. (Both Russia and the United States keep their forces on "hair-trigger" alert and can lob 5,000 thermonuclear bombs in less than half an hour.)

Blair almost missed the call from the MacArthur Foundation because he rarely answers the phone.

"I only answered because I thought it was going to be my wife," says Blair, 51, of Chevy Chase.

The former nuclear missile launch officer will use some of the money to upgrade his home computer. He will also give some of the cash to his parents and other family members.

At his apartment on New York's Upper West Side, Lewis is working on Volume 2 of his biography of American icon and scholar W.E.B. DuBois. Lewis's first volume won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

Serious, important stuff.

What will he do with the money?

"I might run out and buy a new car," says Lewis, who now drives a Honda back and forth to New Jersey, where he teaches. "The Audi TT seems to be an extraordinary automobile."

The grant winners announced yesterday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, ranked in order of grant amount:

* Alison L. Des Forges, 57, of Buffalo; human rights advocate who documents genocide. $375,000.

* Elizabeth Diller, 45, and Ricardo Scofidio, 64, both of New York; architects whose work explores how space functions in our culture. A combined $375,000.

* Saul Friedlander, 66, of Los Angeles; historian studying the Third Reich and the Holocaust. $375,000.

* David Levering Lewis, 63, of New York; race relations scholar who has studied black intellectual and social leaders. $375,000.

* Elizabeth Murray, 58, of New York; painter noted for creating three-dimensional, often large canvases. $375,000.

* Wilma A. Subra, 55, of New Iberia, La.; chemist and environmentalist who helps ordinary Louisiana citizens get toxic sites near their homes cleaned up. $370,000.

* Dennis Albert Moore, 54, of Belem, Para, Brazil; anthropological linguist working to preserve the language and culture of native Brazilians. $365,000.

* Bruce G. Blair, 51, of Washington; foreign policy analyst specializing in ways to reduce nuclear risks. $350,000.

* Gay J. McDougall, 51, of Washington; executive director of the International Human Rights Law Group. $350,000.

* Jacqueline Jones, 51, of Wellesley, Mass.; social historian who has written about Southern, women's, labor and black history. $350,000.

* Ofelia Zepeda, 45, of Tucson, Ariz.; linguist devoted to preserving Indian languages and culture. $320,000.

* PepDon Osorio, 44, of New York; installation artist who uses Hispanic popular culture and traditional aesthetics. $315,000.

* Fred Wilson, 44, of New York; installation artist who explores the relationship between museums and works of art. $315,000.

* Xu Bing, 44, of New York; artist who uses ancient Chinese methods to explore contemporary Chinese art. $315,000.

* Jeffrey R. Weeks, 42, of Canton, N.Y.; mathematician who has helped interpret the shape of the universe. $305,000.

* Mark Danner, 40, of New York; journalist who writes about foreign affairs. $295,000.

* David M. Hillis, 40, of Austin; molecular biologist who uses genetic analysis to study evolution. $295,000.

* Jillian F. Banfield, 39, of Madison, Wis.; mineralogist who studies microbes. $290,000.

* Shawn Carlson, 39, of San Diego; physicist and founder of the Society for Amateur Scientists. $290,000.

* Leslie V. Kurke, 39, of Berkeley, Calif.; scholar of classical Greek antiquity and archaic Greek poetry. $290,000.

* Peter Shor, 39, of Florham Park, N.J.; computer scientist working in quantum computing. $290,000.

* Laura L. Kiessling, 38, of Madison, Wis.; chemist and biochemist who has studied the biology of inflammation. $285,000.

* Naomi Wallace, 38, of Otterburn, North Yorkshire, England and Prospect, Ky.; playwright. $285,000.

* Campbell McGrath, 37, of Miami Beach, Fla.; poet. $280,000.

* Sara Horowitz, 36, of New York; executive director of Working Today, which promotes the interests of people with flexible work schedules. $275,000.

* Ken Vandermark, 34, of Chicago; composer and tenor sax and clarinet player. $265,000.

* John Bonifaz, 33, of Boston; public-interest lawyer and executive director of the National Voting Rights Institute. $260,000.

* Jennifer L. Gordon, 33, of New York; founder of the Workplace Project, which fights abuse and discrimination against immigrant workers. $260,000.

* Carolyn R. Bertozzi, 32, of Albany, Calif.; chemist who developed a method for tricking cells into expressing non-natural sugars on their surface. $255,000.

* Juan Martin Maldacena, 30, of Cambridge, Mass.; physicist who works in the abstract field of string theory. $245,000.

* Eva Silverstein, 28, of Stanford, Calif.; theoretical physicist working to link theories of particle physics and cosmology. $235,000.

CAPTION: Gay McDougall of the International Human Rights Law Group will receive a $350,000 MacArthur grant.

CAPTION: Analyst Bruce Blair, "bowled over."