David Quinn left behind acting, cofounded AllRecipes.com and now teaches in Edmonds

  • Tue May 15th, 2012 8:10pm

By Katie Murdoch Herald writer

David Quinn stood in Manhattan’s Forbidden Planet comic book shop in the late 1980s with Ryan White, a teenager with AIDS who became a symbol of courage after contracting HIV through a blood transfusion.

Quinn was an actor. The two became friends after working together on a show about Ryan’s life. When they hung out, they just tried to have fun, including bonding over their shared love of comic books.

Quinn, in his 20s, was flipping through the pages of the Green Lantern when the question came: Ryan asked Quinn if he was happy.

“No,” said Quinn, answering so quickly that it surprised himself.

And then the most defining question of Quinn’s life came from a 14-year-old who was dying.

“Why aren’t you living your dreams?” Ryan asked.

That was Quinn’s moment of clarity.

It caused him to leave behind his successful acting career and move across the country. It led him to help create AllRecipes.com, a Seattle company that would sell for $66 million. And it emboldened him to pursue a new dream that eventually brought him to Edmonds to be a teacher.

But the changes didn’t happen overnight.

It was more than a year after Ryan died that Quinn took his question to heart and changed his life to pursue his own happiness.

“Every good thing that’s happened to me is because of that moment,” Quinn said.

* * *

The framed photo of 4-year-old David Quinn and his older sister, Debbi, who was then 7, sat on his father’s desk at work. His dad was a physician in New York when a patient noticed the picture.

The patient’s wife was a producer for a new show on the Public Broadcasting Service and they needed children for the pilot episode.

The show was called “Sesame Street.”

That evening, Quinn’s father asked his children if they’d like to be on television. Quinn ran around the house shouting, “I want to be on TV, I want to be on TV.”

It was the beginning of a career for Quinn. He appeared as one of the regular child actors on “Sesame Street” in its first two seasons.

The young Quinn didn’t fully grasp what was happening, but he was having fun. He would sit with other child actors playing games, eating sandwiches and cookies, and drinking juice until they were called to the set. On camera, they learned their ABCs and played with puppets, including Quinn’s favorite, Kermit.

Frank Oz and Jim Henson, the brains behind “Sesame Street” and The Muppets, taught Quinn and the other kids the alphabet using their own tune to sing it. Another favorite memory from those early episodes: David Quinn and his sister got the chance to sing with Johnny Cash.

Quinn spent the next 25 years working as an actor, appearing in commercials, television shows and even films.

As a teen, Quinn attended Stagedoor Manor acting camp in New York, where he befriended Jon Cryer, who would later become the hapless tightwad Alan Harper on “Two and a Half Men.”

Years later, Cryer and Quinn went on a double date. Cryer’s date, Hillary Michael, ended up marrying Quinn.

“I stole Jon Cryer’s date,” Quinn joked. “He’s held it against me for 25 years.”

In his late teens, Quinn and his friends auditioned for the popular educational science-themed series, “3-2-1 Contact.”

His friend went in first. When she left, she said it was the weirdest audition she’d ever had. They handed her a carburetor and asked her to explain what it is and how it works. Knowing what to expect, Quinn walked in and nailed it. He would go on to appear in nearly 80 episodes of the show on PBS.

The show would eventually film a special episode, “I Have AIDS: A Teenager’s Story.”

The primetime TV special featured teenaged White, a hemophiliac who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. The Indiana teenager became the innocent face for a national debate after he was expelled from his school because parents were afraid that he would spread the disease to their children.

The show earned a Peabody Award, which honors public service in television and radio. And his story led to the Ryan White Care Act, enacted in 1990, the country’s largest federally funded program to help people living with HIV/AIDS.

When they were in the Manhattan comic book store, Ryan posed that fateful question to Quinn.

“I remember thinking, ‘You don’t lie to Ryan White,’” he said.

But the truth didn’t lead him to change his life. Quinn continued working as an actor and for a few years after he dabbled in public relations with women’s clothing brand Ann Taylor.

In 1990, Quinn got a phone call from one of his producers to let him know that Ryan had died at the age of 18. A year later, Quinn read in People magazine a feature on how the world changed in the past year. It included a story on Ryan.

Quinn was living in New York with his wife. He asked himself what had changed in his own life. He was still acting, doing something that no longer made him happy.

“I literally turned to my wife and asked her how she would feel if I went back to school,” Quinn said.

Quinn realized he wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher. Four months later, they moved to the Seattle area; his wife’s family is from Richmond Beach. Quinn enrolled at the University of Washington, where his father-in-law was a professor. Quinn double majored in archaeology and English and set about earning a masters in education.

“AllRecipes happened directly because of going there,” he said.

* * *

After an archaeology class at Denny Hall one day, Quinn walked to his prized brand new black Grand Cherokee Jeep. Quinn had never owned a car before – no one owns a car in Manhattan.

A graduate student walked up to Quinn, even though they didn’t know each other. The student, Carl Lipo, started off the conversation by complimenting the Jeep, which had all the extras, including a ski rack.

“This is the strangest pickup line I’ve ever heard,” Quinn remembers thinking.

Lipo invited Quinn back into Denny Hall to see something cool. Lipo and other graduates had set up shop in a closet and were working on an Internet company.

“In 1994, the idea of a start-up didn’t exist,” Quinn said. “Back then, you had to use air quotes for ‘Internet.’”

Quinn listened to what they were doing. And then they presented their pitch – they needed computers. Three, to be exact, costing a total of $15,000. Lipo had approached Quinn, because of how cherry his Jeep was and figured he had some money.

“That investment was made 100 percent based off intuition,” Quinn said. “We founded a company in the parking lot of Denny Hall.”

Co-founder Mark Madsen said that Quinn was brought in to help pay for the computers, but he soon proved a boon to the company. Madsen and the others were graduate students, while Quinn was still an undergrad. But at 30, Quinn had life experience their team needed. And his personality stood out.

Quinn was conspicuously East Coast, Madsen quipped, while he and his friends were stereotypically Pacific Northwest.

“You had a group dominated by computer, nerdy types, and then David was extremely extroverted,” Madsen said. “He’s a bundle of energy. He can out-talk anyone.”

Cookierecipes.com was their first site – the name came from one of the founder’s wives. People could post and swap cookie recipes. They created 25 more sites, each with its own food theme, when the guys decided they needed a brand.

Quinn started as an investor, but over the years he would take a more active role in the company, eventually becoming the chairman. Quinn lent branding expertise he learned from his work in public relations, but he knew that wasn’t enough.

Bill Moore would step in as CEO of the company. It was Moore who recommended they combine all of the recipe sites under one umbrella: AllRecipes.com.

They hoped AllRecipes.com would be successful, but never in their wildest dreams did they imagine how successful.

“When you’re in the middle of doing something awesome, as long as you bring yourself wholly and fully engaged into it, nothing bad can happen,” Quinn said.

AllRecipes.com was purchased by Readers Digest in 2006 for $66 million. Quinn declined to say how much he made on the sale.

“Being the chairman meant I made sure all the investors, founders and employees were happy and everyone was happy,” Quinn said.

Earlier this year, AllRecipes.com was bought again. The Iowa-based publishing company, Meredith Corp., purchased AllRecipes.com for $175 million.

* * *

The melody to REM’s “It’s The End of the World” blares from Quinn’s office down the empty halls of Edmonds-Woodway High School. It’s after school on a February afternoon and Quinn sits at his desk, air-drumming and thrashing his dark, shoulder-length hair. He looks up when visitors enter the office, unfazed, long enough to say, “Hey,” before resuming.

When he talks about teaching, Quinn springs forward, blue eyes wide, and the conversation races faster than the caffeine in his system.

“When you can be involved in the life of an adolescent and bring your life experience and see their success, that’s the cool part,” he said.

He started this new career in the 1990s, first as a student-teacher at Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood and then subbing at Edmonds-Woodway. He knew that he found the district where he wanted to teach.

In fall 1997, Quinn was hired full time at Edmonds-Woodway, one hour after his interview. He’d teach English and the theory of knowledge in the International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous slate of classes where students have to meet internationally based standards. The theory of knowledge class poses the question, “How do we know what we know?” across disciplines and challenges students to probe for knowledge.

The program was already under way when Quinn started. He loved it. The kicker was teaching high school seniors.

“Seniors are thoughtful and they’re ready,” he said. “They know you’re trying to take them to the next level.”

At first, Quinn still had a hand at AllRecipes.com. It wasn’t easy.

“I had to give my kids 100 percent of my attention and the company the other 100 percent of my attention when school was over,” Quinn said. “In truth, I simply don’t require a great deal of sleep.”

This has become a pattern for Quinn. He continues to keep his hand in all sorts of interests. He serves on the boards for both the 5th Avenue and Seattle Repertory theaters.

Quinn’s acting experience, his passion for theater and respect for actors make him an invaluable board member, said Jerry Manning, artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theater.

“All that and his funny glasses and long hair,” he quipped.

Quinn’s role with 5th Avenue is as an advocate and mentor who is able to help raise money, ensuring the theater is on good financial footing for generations to come, said Bernadine C. Griffin, managing director at 5th Avenue.

“He’s such a pure original,” Griffin said. “He has a zest for living that’s contagious.”

In fact, he donates his teaching salary to both theaters.

In honor of Ryan White, Quinn also donates to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

But his calling for the past 15 years has been teaching. He finds himself defending his profession and himself.

He bristles at accusations that teachers are self-serving for wanting higher pay and benefits. But he said he’s also heard criticism from fellow teachers who have called him a dilettante for making his fortune then working as a teacher as a hobby. He says the classroom is where he’s found his bliss.

“If I were smart, I would’ve started at 18 and been twice as happy,” he said.

* * *

Quinn’s perched on the window ledge in the back corner of his classroom wearing his jeans, sweater and white sneakers, arms folded. His students sit in rows facing each other.

On this March day, Quinn struts down the rows as a joke, drawing laughter from the kids. He grabs a grape from the desk of one of his students and pops it into his mouth.

He tries to avoid being in front of the class so that students work with each other. He hopes it empowers them, forces them to talk to each other and ask questions.

“They’re in charge of their education and not looking to me for the answers,” he said. “I want to instruct them without filling their heads. I’m teaching them to think critically.”

His classroom is a place where Quinn’s dreams came true and where he tries to help his students achieve theirs.

Over the past 15 years, he’s taught hundreds of students. He’s worked with financially strapped students who thought they couldn’t attend college. He impresses on them that the IB program is valued by colleges worldwide.

He’s helped introverts shine and has guided dreamers into making their goals a reality.

“You find success when you’re in control and feel comfortable or you can make people uncomfortable and that discomfort makes them look for a solution and then great learning can take place,” he said.

One of his students this year, senior Kimberly Santiago, 17, wrote about Quinn in her application to colleges. She talked about how he tried to make her smile in class, to nudge her out of her shell.

Quinn can be blunt, which intimidates some of Santiago’s peers. “You have to understand he’s doing it for your own good and wants you to succeed,” she said.

Another of his students was Jason Ness, who went on to start an Everett-based Internet company. Years later, Ness still considers Quinn a mentor.

As Ness started out, they had a Sunday breakfast ritual where Quinn offered business advice. Quinn has a tough-love approach and pushes people to be better, Ness said.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without those early meetings with David,” he said.

“Whenever something is hitting the fan, I can go back to him,” Ness said. “He speaks a million miles per minute and he consumes coffee like no one’s business.”

After finding success in many areas, no job has given Quinn greater joy than teaching.

For Quinn, it all comes back to one person, one fateful question, one life-changing moment.

For all the students he’s taught, cajoled or challenged over the years, Quinn points to Ryan White as the one who helped him help them. They’re part of Ryan White’s legacy.

“They’re carrying him,” he said. “It keeps him alive.”

On the last day of school each year, Quinn tells his students his story about Ryan White and that moment in the comic book shop.

“Every good thing that’s happened is because of that moment,” he said. “I’m not there without Ryan.”