Conservation HeroPosted by admin on 3/14/13 • Categorized as Featured Stories
By Amy Elliott Bragg’06
Here’s a scavenger hunt for you: The next time you visit Beloit, see if you can find the two most important ducks in town.
Hint: They’re not in the Rock River. Without them, there might not be any ducks in the Rock River.
They were penned by Jay Norwood Darling (1900), an unlikely and yet completely Beloitish hero of the American conservation movement. The son of a minister, he loved music, drew for fun, and wanted to be a doctor. He would grow up to be expelled from two schools (including Beloit), win a slew of awards (two Pulitzer Prizes among them), befriend Presidents (including both Roosevelts), make Presidents angry (just one Roosevelt), and change the way the country manages its natural wealth.
And did I mention he would save the ducks?
Darling was born in Norwood, Mich., a small town on Grand Traverse Bay, in 1876. When he was 10, the Darling family moved to Sioux City, Iowa, a frontier town just across the Missouri River from South Dakota.
Life on the edge of the wilderness was formative for Darling, wrote David Lendt in his definitive biography, Ding: The Life of Jay Norwood Darling.
“Jay Darling thrived in the spacious fields of high grass through which he and his brother Frank roamed, whether afoot or astride their spirited Indian ponies,” he wrote. “He spent many summer nights on the prairie or along the banks of the Missouri River or the Big Sioux River, listening to the voice of the puma.”
Jay Darling came to Beloit in 1895. It was his second college try—the previous year, he’d been expelled from Yankton College in South Dakota for taking a joyride in the president’s horse and buggy.
At Beloit, Darling epitomized the ultra-engaged, overcommitted, widely curious Beloiter. Below his 1898 junior class portrait, he listed among his activities: leader of Glee Club, manager of the track team, managing editor of the college newspaper, art editor of the Codex, member of Beta Theta Pi and bass singer in the college’s male quartet. He also wrote that he “flunked all my studies except biology.”
In the pages of the 1899 Codex, the yearbook, Darling—who had begun to sign his sketches “Ding,” a contraction of his last name—flaunted his disregard for Victorian-era decorum.
He drew a program for a fictional faculty vaudeville show that lampooned the esteemed professors who had for years been frowning at Darling to get in line. Later in his life, Darling would claim that his lousy grades, not the drawings, were to blame. But the irreverent illustrations couldn’t have helped when Beloit’s faculty voted in June 1898 to expel him for a year.
More than 20 years later, after his cartoons had brought him critical accolades and national fame, the Codex scandal was both the stuff of legend and still a little humiliating for Ding.
“My college career has always been a thing upon which I rather dreaded to look back, owing to the rough spots,” Darling wrote in a letter to Beloit’s vice president in 1925. “The indication that I may have redeemed myself in after years in the eyes of my old Alma Mater is a thing greatly to be coveted.”
During his expulsion from Beloit, Darling retreated to Sioux City, where he briefly worked for the Sioux City Journal. After his deferred graduation in 1900, he went back to the Journal to work as a cub reporter.
He didn’t aim to be a journalist; he was just trying to save money for medical school.
But a fateful assignment changed his course: Darling, covering a trial, tried to sneak a photograph of an irascible attorney. When the attorney caught him in the act, he yelped, jumped over a chair, and chased the young reporter from the courtroom, swinging his cane. Darling outran him, hustled back to the newsroom, and dug through his notebooks for a sketch he had made of the attorney. It ran with Darling’s article in place of the thwarted photo.
People loved it—so much that Darling began sketching “local snapshots” of familiar Sioux City faces. These, and an illustrated series of “Interviews that Never Happened,” made him known (and a little notorious) in Sioux City. In 1906, after he was fired for an offending sketch of a local doctor, Darling went to the Des Moines Register, where he would work, with only a brief interruption, for the rest of his career.
A syndication agreement with the Herald Tribune in 1916 brought his cartoons to 130 newspapers across the country and to thousands of readers who looked forward to spending their mornings with Ding Darling.
There was something Theodore Rooseveltian about Ding Darling, with his abundance of energy, his grit, and his connection to nature, both sportsmanlike and almost spiritual.
Darling admired Roosevelt and aligned himself politically with Roosevelt’s independent, progressive Republican ideas. Government non-interference in private enterprise, concerns over inflation and debt, frustration with bureaucracy, wariness of welfare programs, contempt for socialism, and strong stands of military might at home and abroad were recurring themes throughout his editorial career.
His conservation cartoons were way ahead of their time. Whimsically exasperated or matter-of-factly grim, they warned of deforestation, dwindling food and fresh water supplies, soil erosion and degradation, crippling dependence on fossil fuel, and wildlife extinction—and pushed against private and political special interests to promote the greatest (and most scientific) good for the ecosystem.
In 1931, Darling contributed a few thousand dollars of his own money to help establish the Iowa Fish and Game Commission, which sought to disentangle wildlife management from the caprices of state politics (and indirectly, the state’s agricultural interests) and create a nonpartisan organization for conservation. Darling was elected the commission’s first chairman.
A landmark achievement of Darling’s work in Iowa—and a legacy of his commitment to education—was the creation of Cooperative Research Units, which brought together nine land-grant colleges, their state conservation departments, and the Wildlife Management Institute. They provided an urgently needed pipeline of educated conservation scientists for careers in the emerging field of wildlife management and research.
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