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Ding Darling

The birds sing his praises -- and so do we!

Published in Beloit Magazine/Summer 1983
by Sarah "Bird" Cupps, '85

 

     Every year I spend three weeks of my life in paradise.

     Paradise is located on tiny Sanibel Island off the west coast of Florida. But not just any tourist will appreciate the wonder of this place. To really get the full impact you have to go about halfway along the sanctuary drive in the "Ding" Darling national refuge. Go out to where there are little coves between the gravel road and the mangroves. Make sure it's about 5:30 in the afternoon and pass all the people who are gathered watching the sand flats. Wade through the tall grass and sit along the water's edge on the shells. As the sky darkens, the flocks will approach and drift down right before you like billions of pink dandelion seeds. It's Roseate Spoonbill time in the "Ding" Darling memorial refuge.

     Ding who, you say?

     That's Ding Darling, Jay Norwood Darling, the conservationist, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, the wildlife artist, and the Beloit College graduate.

     Ding graduated from Beloit in 1900, although he is considered a member of the class of 1899. The reason for this graduation mix-up was a source of confusion for many years. The story became, for a time, a legend of Beloit College and a part of the Ding Darling "folklore." The old tale explains Ding's one year expulsion, causing his late graduation, as a consequence of his early cartooning. He was roped into his first artistic endeavor as art director of the Codex (Beloit's yearbook at the time) and he drew several cartoons of the administration and faculty that were not well received. President Edward Dwight Eaton dances the highland fling in appropriate garb. "Billy," the revered and staunch Latin professor William Porter, sings "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." The crowning touch was the faculty in tutus lined up as chorus girls, all faces recognizable.

     While back in Beloit for a class reunion in 1959 Ding finally cleared up the real reason for his expulsion. "I don't really think I was expelled because of the picture." Ding said. "I flunked damn near every study that year. I was a no good student."

     So much for one of Beloit College's favorite fables.

     Jay Darling's college career began in South Dakota at Yankton College. Always the leader, he organized, captained, and played on the college's first football team. But he was dismissed from the Congregational school when the president's horse developed a stiff gait about the same time the president found Darling's cufflink on the buggy floor. Seems Ding and a few buddies had "borrowed" the horse and buggy for an evening.

     Jay didn't slow down when he came to Beloit in 1895. Paying his way using his musical talent, Ding, as he put it, "could sing in any religion you wanted, and I made the rounds of all the funerals every week." Before he left he managed the track team, led the glee club, was a member of the mandolin club and Beta Sigma Psi fraternity, was managing editor of the Round Table, and was late every day to his 8 a.m. class, "Evidences of Christianity," with President Eaton.

     His junior year motto was "I want to be an angel." This was the same year he was thrown out of school. His year off sent him singing with a male quartet, milking cows and picking corn, and to his first newspaper job, reporting for the Sioux City Tribune.

     Jay Darling had learned to love nature early on. He spent many of his teenage summers on his Uncle John's farm near Albion, Michigan.

     Ding remembered the shattering experience of returning to his Uncle's farm as the family representative to John's funeral. Later he wrote: "It seemed as if the farm had died with Uncle John." The topsoil of the grain field had been stripped away. The timber had been cut. The river was reduced to a muddy trickle unfit for game fish. The pasture, bare of grass, was scarred and slashed by erosion and no longer of any use. A solitary crow rose from the barnyard and slowly flapped out of sight -- the only sign of wildlife left on the place.

     "This was my first conscious realization," wrote Darling, "of what could happen to land, what could happen to clear running streams, what could happen to bird life, and human life when the common laws of Mother Nature were disregarded."

     Through his favorite Beloit College professor, H. D. Densmore, who tied biology to man's existence and to all living things, Ding learned respect for the natural world.

     After leaving Beloit, Ding returned to Sioux City to start a career in journalism. He was hired as a reporter with the Journal and had his first drawing published when he failed to obtain a photograph of a crotchety old camera-shy lawyer. The drawing was so successful that he was asked to do more sketches of people in Sioux City. His drawing developed into cartooning and the young journalist's career was on its way up.

     In 1911 Ding went to the New York Globe. Although his career was booming with a wider circulation, his time in New York was one of strife. He was pressured to agree with the editorial views of the Globe, and he disliked the impersonal nature of his New York position as compared with Iowa journalism. Two years later Ding returned to the Des Moines Register and Leader.

     During World War I, Darling accepted an offer from the New York Herald Tribune to have his cartoons syndicated. People all over the country turned open their newspapers in the morning to see what Ding had to say. He worked with the Register and Leader the rest of his life and in both 1924 and 1934 won the Pulitzer Prize for the best cartoon.

     Ding drew conservation cartoons all his life, and he became as renowned an environmentalist as he was a journalist. Beloit College awarded him an honorary degree in 1925. In 1934 he was appointed to the so-called Beck Committee which was established to solve the crisis of declining waterfowl populations. The committee report urged President Roosevelt to support more national wildlife refuges, and the President approved their recommendation and sent it to the U. S. Biological Survey for implementation.

     Ding was asked to take over the Biological Survey when the previous director resigned after failing to implement the Beck Committee's proposal. Under Ding, the national wildlife refuge system grew by leaps and bounds. He restructured the Survey and turned it into an effective, well organized bureau. Probably his greatest achievement was the organization of a national program for the training of youth in wildlife management. He is also remembered for his work establishing national wildlife refuges, including the founding of the National Wildlife Federation.

     Just before Ding was named chief of the Biological Survey, Roosevelt signed the Duck Stamp Bill. Hunters buy the stamp each season, and the money goes toward helping establish wildlife refuges. Ding was asked to draw the first duck stamp, now displayed in the H. D. Densmore Department of Biology at Beloit College. The original engraving was presented to the college in 1981 by the J. N. "Ding" Darling Foundation. The Foundation also established a scholarship for a Beloit College student who will graduate with a knowledge of conservation and the ability to communicate that knowledge.

     J. N. Darling died of a stroke on Feb. 12, 1962. Having been ill for some time before this, he drew his final cartoon "Bye Now -- It's Been Wonderful Knowing You." In 1967 the wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida was dedicated to J. N. "Ding" Darling. Ding had a vacation home on neighboring Captiva Island and, incensed by the bombing practice the islands suffered during World War II, he worked to have his island paradise turned into a refuge. A plaque on the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge headquarters reads in part: "It was Darling's hope that future generations could share the beauty, serenity, and the bounty of nature he had known."

     In the last letter received from him, Ding outlines his ideas on national development of the Missouri River. He concludes: "Maybe this is a crazy idea. I had a mild stroke three or four weeks ago and the wheels, bolts, and straps are beginning to fall off my little wagon, but I guess you can expect such things when you get into your mid-eighties. I am still most happy that my life has been spent in the preservation of just the ideals to which you have devoted yourself."

 

Sarah Cupps wrote this article last fall for English Professor Marion Stocking's "Writing Towards Publication" class. Sarah will be a junior at Beloit this fall and is an English literature and composition major. Her home is Hampshire, Ill., and she vacations with her family on Sanibel Island, Fla., the site of the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

 Ding Darling's Selected Student Works

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