Jay Norwood Darling was born on October 21, 1876, in Norwood, Michigan. His father, Marcellus Darling, was a Civil War veteran and Congregational minister, and after sojourns in Cambria, Michigan, and Elkhart, Indiana, the family ended up in Sioux City, Iowa, when Jay was ten. He grew up enjoying the wild spaces along the Missouri River and came to love the prairies and marshes of South Dakota.
A seemingly insignificant event in Jay's childhood was to have an impact on his later life. While the family was in Elkhart, it had met Lamarcus Thompson, an entrepreneur who went on to build roller coasters and amusement parks (a business Darling's brother Frank was later to join). While building a roller coaster in London, Thompson sent the Darlings a "Pat and Mike" card. Jay was intrigued by this card, and tried to imitate the drawing. Soon he was carrying a sketch pad and making several sketches every day. Drawing was apparently not well regarded as a career in his Congregational household, and he did not think of pursuing art as a profession. He wanted to be a doctor.
He enrolled in Yankton College in South Dakota in 1894 but was expelled after taking a joy ride in the President's carriage. In 1895, he entered Beloit College, supporting himself during his college years by playing the mandolin and singing bass. He was made art director of the yearbook, the Codex and first used the contraction "D'ing" to sign illustrations in it. These included drawings of professors, caricatured but recognizable, in tutus and tartans and dancing in a chorus line. He was suspended from Beloit College, supposedly for these drawings but, according to Darling, the real reason was that he was failing all his courses. During his suspension he traveled on the Chautauqua circuit with a male quartet, but returned to Beloit and graduated in 1900.
In order to earn money to put himself though medical school, he went to work at the age of twenty-three as a cub reporter for the Sioux City Journal. While writing for the Journal, he continued to draw. He also dabbled in photography and was occasionally asked to take photographs for the newspaper. One day he was sent to photograph an attorney to accompany a piece he had written. The attorney objected and chased Darling out of the courtroom. Darling substituted a drawing that he had already made of the lawyer, and the editor decided to publish it. It was so successful that Darling was engaged to do a series on Sioux City characters called "Local Snapshots" (1901-1902). This was followed by "Interviews that Never Happened," written with John W. Carey and illustrated by Darling's caricatures.
Darling worked at the Sioux City Journal for six years, during which time he came to be compared to John McCutcheon of the Chicago Tribune. When George D. Perkins, editor of the Sioux City Journal, ran for governor in 1904 and Darling's cartoons supported him, the cartoons received state-wide attention. Also during this time Darling was courting Genevieve Pendleton, known to all as Penny, serenading her, to her embarrassment, with his mandolin, and on October 31, 1906, they were married in Sioux City. While honeymooning in the West Indies, an offer from the Des Moines Register and Leader reached them. Unbeknownst to them, the timing was perfect, because the editor of the Sioux City Journal was preparing to fire Darling over a disagreement about a portrait that Darling had published earlier in "Local Snapshots."
At the end of 1906, at the age of thirty, Darling began his long career at the Des Moines Register and Leader (later the Des Moines Register). The editor, Gardner Cowles, gave Darling complete artistic and editorial freedom, only sometimes -- and rarely -- deciding not to publish a cartoon. Darling thrived in this atmosphere, and his reputation grew. In 1909, Penny gave birth to their son, John.
In 1911, Ding accepted a position at the New York Globe so that his work could reach a larger audience through its new national syndication service. He was unhappy at the Globe, however, where management pressured him to draw cartoons that reflected its editorial views and asked him to do comic strips. Also while he was in New York, an old injury to his right elbow flared up and impaired his ability to draw. He tried to teach himself to draw with his left hand. Adding to his general unhappiness was the fact that despite making more money, he had financial problems. A bright spot of the time in New York was the birth of a daughter, Mary. In 1913, he returned to Iowa and the Des Moines Register and Leader. To accommodate his painful elbow, he devised a technique by which he made his drawings in small versions which were projected and enlarged, then traced by an assistant.
The Des Moines Register and Leader could not offer syndication, but, after initial resistance, Cowles permitted Darling to syndicate his cartoons through the New York Herald Tribune. In 1916 Darling signed a ten-year contract with that syndicate, which had 130 client newspapers. Part of this contract required him to spend several days a month in New York, so the family lived there in 1918-1919. (His reaction to this period is wonderfully captured in a piece he wrote for The American Magazine). While in New York, he met another Sioux City man, Dr. Frederick Peterson, a neurologist, who put Darling in contact with doctors who eventually operated on his arm. The surgery was successful, and Darling resumed his active life.
In 1919, he returned to Des Moines for good. He was active in many organizations, including the Men's Garden Club and the Izaak Walton League. In 1924, he won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1925, he was stricken with peritonitis and was unable to draw his cartoon for most of the year. His assistant, Tom Carlisle, filled in for him during this illness and many times afterward.
In the early 1930s, he became involved in conservation movements, such as the State of Iowa Fish and Game Commission, and put up $9000 of his own money to help fund the Cooperative Wildlife Research Center at Iowa State College (later Iowa State University). In 1934, he was appointed by F.D. Roosevelt (most of whose New Deal policies he despised as a staunch Republican) to a three man committee to study the conservation of migrating wildfowl, and later in 1934, he was appointed Chief of the Biological Survey, where he implemented the Duck Stamp Act and designed the first duck stamp. He ran the Survey energetically for twenty months. The job was exhausting, Darling was nearing sixty, his bulldog tactics and blunt locution made him, and the Survey, enemies, and Penny would not live in Washington, D.C. (See "Conserving Our Wild Life" 1935).
By 1936 he had returned to the Des Moines Register. He also began organizing the National Wildlife Federation. In a 1936 conference in Washington, D.C., Darling was elected its president. Wishing to make the Federation self-supporting rather than taxing local conservation groups, Darling devised the idea of annual wildlife stamps.
In 1939, Darling's son John, an up-and-coming physician, was seriously injured in an automobile accident. He sustained brain damage that was to affect him the rest of his life. Darling planned conservation education events for the Chautauqua in 1940, but the series was cancelled when stomach ulcers prevented him from finishing the plan on time; a second series planned for 1941 was cancelled after the country entered World War II. He became disillusioned with several groups with whom he worked during this time, among them the League of Women Voters and the National Wildlife Federation. He took an interest in local politics, and in 1941 helped organize the Committee of Thirty, a resource for Republican candidates resisting FDR's New Deal politics.
In the early 1940s, his doctors advised him to cut back on his activities, and he did curtail his speaking engagements -- he was an energetic and entertaining speaker -- but in his mid-sixties was still carrying a heavy workload. He also felt that his style of cartooning was becoming passé. However, in 1942, he won a second Pulitzer.
After the war, he thought the time was again ripe for promoting conservation. (See "The Story of the Ground Water Table" 1944). He tried to start the Conservation Clearinghouse as a central site for publications and media services for conservation groups, but its reception was lukewarm, and he abandoned it. He fought for the creation of state conservation agencies, for independence of the Conservation Commission from the Executive branch, for study and restoration of the water table, and for the institution of the Iowa State Teachers Conservation Camp. One success was the Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at Iowa State University where wildlife technicians were educated. In the 1948 election, Darling was active again, and Truman's election was another blow to the man who had lost so many conservation battles.
He officially resigned from the Register in 1949, and Tom Carlisle took over the cartooning responsibilities. Darling stopped drawing editorial cartoons, save for an occasional cartoon for conservation purposes. He continued active in conservation matters, especially conservation education. In association with American School Administrators, Darling worked on a conservation yearbook, but after eight months, quit in disgust at the manuscript they had produced. In fact, Darling was disillusioned with many things, and especially with the National Wildlife Federation, which he had helped to start. He said the way it had turned out was the bitterest disappointment in his life. He saw many other conservation initiatives fail, and their failure was all the more painful because, had the Wildlife Federation turned out as he had envisioned, it might have had the power to influence matters in favor of conservationists. (See, however, "Conservation Education" 1950).
The 1950s found Darling cynical and irascible. In 1954 he spent five weeks in a hospital in Saint Paul with a heart ailment. He tired easily, and his prodigious output of letters decreased, as he tired in the middle of dictation. To increase his despondency John, who had married and had children and was practicing medicine, began to suffer epileptic fits traceable to the head injury from the motor vehicle accident twenty years earlier. This ruined his medical practice and sometimes caused irrational behavior. By 1957, John was living in a nursing home with every likelihood that he would spend the rest of his life there.
Jay and Penny wintered for many years in a house on Captiva Island, Florida. They also owned a house in Des Moines on Terrace Road near the governor's mansion, and Peony Farm outside Des Moines, where Darling went to relax and indulge in a hobby, making etchings. (He never sold his etchings himself, because he didn't think they were good enough.) By the late 1950s, they found that they could not manage all three establishments, and they sold the Captiva and Des Moines houses. Since Darling had designed additions to the Des Moines house to suit his purposes and had a large studio there, it was hard to give it up.
In addition, Darling was still losing battles on the conservation front. Over Darling's objections, the Red Rock and Saylorville dams and reservoirs were approved and funded. Often stricken with serious illnesses, Darling kept up the conservation fight. He proposed that the entire Missouri River between Iowa and Nebraska be turned into an interstate park and that the trail that Lewis and Clark had traveled be made into a series of related parks.
During the late 1950s, Jay and Penny spent a lot of time traveling. In 1959, he spent some time in the hospital where, thinking he was dying, Darling made a farewell drawing. He gave this to his secretary of many years, Merle Strasser. Fortunately, he survived this illness, and Strasser filed the drawing.
In the early 1960s, he was showered with many honors, and he seemed to cheer up somewhat. He reconciled with some organizations, most notably the National Wildlife Federation.
In 1961, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left hand. He could not see, hear, or breathe well. He died on February 12, 1962. Strasser retrieved the drawing Ding had made in the hospital in 1959, and it was published in the Des Moines Register on February 13.
Within a month of his death, the J. N. "Ding" Darling Foundation was formed. In 1965 the J. N. Darling National Wildlife Refuge was established on Sanibel Island, Florida, supported by The "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society.
Darling was an active, energetic, boisterous, outspoken, and articulate man with a wonderful sense of humor enriched by a common sense view of the world. His achievements were considerable, and he has left a nearly complete record of his professional life in the papers at the University of Iowa.
Based in part on David Lendt, Ding, The Life of Jay Norwood Darling (available through the J. N. "Ding" Darling Foundation).