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Professor, lawyer with Pittsburgh ties earn MacArthur 'genius grants'

| Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, 7:21 a.m.
Pittsburgh native and Atlanta lawyer Jonathan Rapping, a legal defense advocate and founder of Gideon’s Promise, is among the 21 winners of the  MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” announced on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
MacArthur Foundation
Pittsburgh native and Atlanta lawyer Jonathan Rapping, a legal defense advocate and founder of Gideon’s Promise, is among the 21 winners of the MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” announced on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Terrance Hayes, a poet and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is a winner of a McArthur Foundation fellowship.
MacArthur Foundation
Terrance Hayes, a poet and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is a winner of a McArthur Foundation fellowship.

Even after three decades away from his hometown, MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner Jonathan Rapping bleeds black and gold.

“My kids are 6 and 10, and they're die-hard Steelers fans,” the Atlanta lawyer said. At M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on Thursday, “I was the only person in a Steelers jersey surrounded by a sea of purple.”

Rapping's work since he left Pittsburgh to attend college and law school earned him a place among the 21 winners of this year's MacArthur grants.

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the 2014 recipients on Wednesday. They each will receive $625,000. The recipients are an eclectic mix of scientists, mathematicians, historians, a cartoonist and a composer.

Rapping, 48, founded Gideon's Promise in 2007 to train and help rebuild public defender's offices nationwide.

“I started my career in Washington, D.C., and for 10 years was able to give every client the representation they deserved,” said Rapping, who graduated from Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill.

When he moved to Georgia to help train public defenders, the “embarrassingly low standards” of public defender's offices moved him to try to make improvements, he said.

“I would go into these offices and see these young public defenders … and (the system) would beat the passion out of them, and after a while, they were resigned to the status quo,” he said.

He started Gideon's Promise to “develop a community of public defenders who would not only have the tools and skills to represent people well, but to support them and overcome these pressures.”

The Atlanta-based nonprofit started with 16 lawyers in two offices. It grew to train more than 300 lawyers in 12 states.

Terrance Hayes, 42, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, won a grant. The poet, who focuses on race, gender and family, joined Pitt's faculty in 2013 after 12 years at Carnegie Mellon University. He earned a master's degree in fine arts from Pitt in 1997.

The Associated Press contributed.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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