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.
The Research Units still give graduate students applied research opportunities in wildlife management and boost the research capacity of wildlife management organizations. Today, there are 40 Cooperative Research Units in 38 states.
By the time the Research Units were founded, Darling was already a household name, but his conservation efforts in Iowa brought him national prominence as an activist and thinker, and pulled him into the orbit of another Roosevelt, one whose policies he had spent years inking screeds against.
By the 1930s, waterfowl populations in the United States were in dramatic decline, due to under-regulation, over-hunting, agricultural practices that degraded natural habitats, and the effects of the Dust Bowl, which evaporated delicate ecosystems across the Great Plains.
In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Darling chief of the newly formed Bureau of Biological Survey. Darling only led the bureau for 20 months, but his impact on the organization that would become the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was profound. He squeezed regulations tighter than they’d ever been and expanded the government’s ability to police game hunters and enforce federal protection laws. He put a young Midwesterner, John Clark Salyer II, in charge of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Together they planned a comprehensive and intentional refuge system, charted along migratory flyways. Salyer, the “father of the refuge system,” would increase refuge land from 1.5 million to 29 million acres in his career.
But Darling’s most celebrated achievement at the bureau was, without a doubt, the Duck Stamp.
Roosevelt had signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act days after Darling’s appointment. The stamp, essentially a hunting license, provided a permanent, perpetual source of funding for protection of migratory waterfowl and their habitats.
Darling had to use his grit to get things going. The stamp program wasn’t funded, and Roosevelt ignored Darling’s repeated requests for money, sometimes writing him cheeky IOUs. So Darling found an ally in Congress, Senator Peter Norbeck, who introduced a $6 million appropriation to a bill for the Biological Survey. In addition to funding land aquisition and wildlife protection, it contained a clause for the duck stamp program. The appropriation passed.
Fortuitously, the bill landed on Roosevelt’s desk when he was about to leave for a fishing trip. Oblivious to the $6 million appropriation, and apparently eager to go on vacation, he signed it.
In a letter, Roosevelt wrote: “This fellow Darling is the only man in history who got an appropriation through Congress, past the Budget and signed by the President without anybody realizing that the Treasury had been raided.”
Since 1934, the Duck Stamp program has raised more than $750 million and helped to purchase more than 6 million acres of wetlands habitat for the National Wildlife Refuge System. The very first Duck Stamp was designed, of course, by America’s most famous bird lover cartoonist: Ding Darling.
His federal conservation work gave him a birds-eye view of the dedicated but disparate conservation work happening across the country. Darling wanted to bring together small, focused groups—4-H chapters and the Girl Scouts, big game hunters and gun clubs, birders and foresters—to learn from each other, and to advocate together. What would become the National Wildlife Federation was founded in 1936.
“Long before the word ‘interdisciplinary’ became jargon in formal education, Darling saw the wisdom of folding ecological education into a variety of disciplines, tying them together with an interrelated thread,” wrote David Lendt. “It was just such an approach to biology that had kindled his interest in his days at Beloit College.”
How Darling did what he did in less than 200 years is a marvel. Among the major landmarks not mentioned previously in this article are Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Southwest Florida, which Darling fought to protect from environmental degradation and over-development. Today, on Sanibel, the mangrove forests of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge are vibrant with pelicans, ospreys, roseate spoonbills, ibises, egrets, and more than 200 other bird species.
Darling’s legacy has continued to evolve and grow since his death in 1962 at the age of 85. His allies, friends, and family founded the J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation to advance Darling’s leadership in conservation education. Every year, the Beloit College biology department selects a sophomore or junior to receive the J.N. “Ding” Darling Award for proficiency and promise in conservation—an award established in 1981 by the Ding Darling Foundation.
Today, Beloit College students can major in environmental studies, an interdisciplinary program that brings together economics, politics, and the natural and social sciences. Or, they can become Sustainability Fellows through an eight-week summer program that provides applied learning and research opportunities in the community. Although sustainability is a relatively new approach to conservation, it’s compatible with Darling’s vision of environmental protection—holistic, scientific, and informed by understanding and respect for the systems that support every living thing on Earth.
(Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you want to solve the scavenger hunt on your own.)
So it’s fitting that today’s biology students at Beloit—none of whom, hopefully, are flunking every other class—are greeted on their walk to class in the Center for the Sciences by an engraving of two ducks cruising into a grassy marsh. That’s a framed and signed print of the original engraving (above), by Ding Darling, of the first Federal Duck Stamp—the drawing that saved the ducks.
- Watch for America’s Darling on your local PBS station in 2013. The documentary film about Ding Darling by Marvo Entertainment draws some of its sources from Beloit College Archives. Filmmaker Sam Koltinsky was in Beloit in February when the documentary screened at the Beloit International Film Festival.
- Over the past several years, Beloit College Archives has made its holdings of Darling’s sketches, cartoons, and correspondence available through the Beloit College Digital Collections. See www.beloit.edu/bcdc/darling.
Amy Elliott Bragg’06 is a Detroit-based writer, editor, and instigator of historical antics. She writes irreverently about pre-automotive Detroit history at her blog nighttraintodetroit.com.