Never A Dull Moment
photo by Brett Cline
By 8:30 a.m., David Stinson has been up for hours. “At this point in my life I‘m comfortable with any situation except boredom,” he says in a relaxed, smooth tone. As an Aiken area real estate agent specializing in historic and estate properties, an arts enthusiast and a natural-born philanthropist he seldom twiddles his thumbs wondering what to do next. He’s up and going after it and getting it done before the sun catches its first whiff of morning coffee.
The offspring of parents he describes as “dynamic professionals,” he inherits his spry spirit from a bit of genetics, a bale of observational learning and a load of encouragement. Warrenton, Va., where he grew up in a household with a father who practiced medicine as a radiologist and a mother involved in the performing arts as a conductor, resembled Aiken in its historic charm and equestrian bent. And the family’s bustling in-town home shook with the activity of Stinson, his civic-minded parents, his three sisters and their menagerie of pets (including a bat). “We were instructed to be self-sufficient in our entertainment,” he says of his parents’ childrearing style, which stimulated resourcefulness and independence.
Both his mother and father freely shared their talents within their small community. His father opened a free clinic in Warrenton, providing skilled medical care to those who otherwise could not afford it. Despite criticism from his colleagues and others, he remained staunchly dedicated to extending services to the impoverished, underprivileged populace of the area. Stinson’s mother, who studied with Leonard Bernstein, helped develop music programs in the public schools. Their passion for using their gifts to make a difference left a lasting impression on him.
Like his parents, Stinson weaves work, volunteerism and leisure pursuits into an intricate tapestry in which the individual strands obscure into the overall landscape, complexly blending into a complete picture. “We grew up thinking we had to be busy,” he says. Not a jittery, nervous kind of busy that keeps a person skittering around without focus, but a purposeful movement toward goals for one’s self-improvement and the betterment of one’s environment and one’s fellow sojourners there.
A 20-year resident of Aiken, Stinson embraces the slow, easy pace of the classic South and takes pleasure in introducing newcomers to this “gentle town.” Aiken’s loveliness sings quietly in the background as Stinson goes about the business of not just familiarizing the uninitiated with her but also joining forces with other citizens coaxing and nudging her to a place of ever greater depth and generosity and character. Together, they cooperatively work to ensure that the city never falls into the quagmire of superficial beauty. A diverse number of organizations have benefitted from his propensity to dig in and drive forward. The South Carolina Arts Commission, Aiken Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Aiken Board of Realtors, Aiken Driving Club, Green Boundary Club and Juilliard in Aiken Performing Arts Festival claim the good fortune of being the targets of his energies.
Following in the exemplary footsteps of his father, Stinson is especially proud to preside as the president of the Community Medical Clinic of Aiken County. It’s goal and mission—to serve the impoverished and uninsured in a professional environment—is the same as his father’s once was. Over the past six years, he and the board members serving with him have grown the clinic into its own building with seven physician volunteers who treat more 1,000 patients a year. Through fundraising and volunteer recruitment efforts he hopes to continue the clinic’s progress and ultimately eliminate the waiting list. “I believe we’re doing God’s work here,” Stinson says confidently. “We’re able to provide free medicines and free visits and keep people in the game.”
Certainly, primary medical care is at the forefront of the clinic’s purpose. But it’s arguable that Stinson has a secondary motivation for his involvement. To keep the clinic’s patients “in the game” is to keep them engaged in the full gamut of life. Reflecting on the creeping dissolution of his parent’s marriage during his late childhood, and their response to it, he realizes that the experience elucidated for him the necessity of refusing to set aside beloved interests in the face of adversity. “There was never time wasted being down in the dumps,” he says. “The whole notion to fill your life with healthy pursuits in tough times and get the most out of it was a lucky lesson to learn.” Stay in the game was the resounding message. His work with the Aiken clinic enables others to do that as well.
Staying in the game, however, doesn’t mean a person can’t change the game plan. Landing in Los Angeles after earning a master’s degree in dance with a focus on choreography, he did anything he could to make it in his chosen field. Teaching performance and choreography and writing reviews for the Los Angeles Times were not enough to make ends meet, however. After considerable struggle, he rolled to a stop behind a desk in a travel agency where he turned to a co-worker one day, sighed, and said, “I’ve got to find something else to do.”
David Stinson: A 20-year resident of Aiken, he embraces the slow, easy pace of this “gentle town.“
He picked the perfect office mate in whom to confide. Her husband was hiring for a position at the Academy of Motion Pictures. Not one to wallow in indecision, Stinson immediately pushed back his chair and exited. He drove directly to her husband’s office, walked in and announced, “I don’t even know the job you’re hiring for, but I’ll work until midnight learning and mastering it.” Boldness and confidence like that get a guy hired as art and design director for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. His new position essentially equaled a ticket into the Academy Awards and into the presence of great cinematic thinkers, writers and producers. Gumption made the difference between sustaining himself and truly enjoying himself.
After seven years, though, his position at the Academy of Motion Pictures lost its creative thrill. That rogue, boredom, squared off with him as he crested the learning curve and his responsibilities evolved into rote routines. His longtime friend Wilkins Byrd, a 13th generation South Carolinian, sensing Stinson’s restlessness, suggested a game-changing move to Aiken. Where once the funky music of Venice Beach wah-wahed within, a forgotten longing for the twang of open spaces welled up in Stinson. Aiken reminded him of his hometown of Warrenton and he embraced relocation as a new beginning, a next step on a lifelong adventure. If his time in Los Angeles taught him anything, it was “that it is acceptable, challenging and wonderful to reinvent yourself. You can reach into the basket and grab an opportunity.”
A double decade immersion in the beat and thump of Aiken has evoked the eruption of a new period for Stinson. He calls it his renaissance. Recognizing that his pendulum had swung too far to civic obligations—he found his time whittled away by the yes word—he decided to once again feed his artistic hankerings. In March he played the role of Malvolio in the Aiken Playhouse production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. He has taken a welding class at Aiken Tech and learned how to build sculptures. He studies painting and enrolls in drawing classes. He reads books on astronomy and biology. “So many of the solutions in life come out of understanding how the universe works,” he muses in the manner of a renaissance man.
Fondly, he recalls his mother’s habit of handing out chore lists that not only bullet-pointed duties like bringing in firewood, but also tasks like writing a poem or mastering a new song on the piano. She’s a woman who is never content without a project and she infused that same proclivity in her children. Stinson has begun doing for himself what his mother did for him as a child. He writes his list of labors to include labors of love.
But don’t let his bow-tied, buttoned-down first impression fool you. David Stinson has a sense of humor as big as his heart, jovially stating, “I can’t live without dogs for companionship and bacon on the menu.” Laughing, he adds, “April Fools was a day of horror for kids in my family.” For all of their intense interest in the sciences, arts and civics, his parents loved puns and funny stories and laughing out loud. He and his sisters competed to outdo each other’s punch lines. It’s this playfulness combined with a discerning intellect and devilishly well-mannered gentility that draws people to him, and these are the tools he wields to affect change. He’s quick to note, “The greatest use of talent is to find solutions and improve the world,” and even quicker to call the roll of local “heroes and angels” brave and willing to give of themselves, selflessly, so that everyone, the wealthy, the poor, the educated, the illiterate, the young, the old and, even the dogs, can hear the gentle town of Aiken’s loveliness singing quietly in the background of their own unique lifelong adventures. •