Register cartoonist’s passion for conservation lives on in Florida

At the JN “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida, Iowans are one family.

Hawkeye State sends hundreds—perhaps thousands—of visitors each year to the 6,500-acre retreat named for conservationist and former Des Moines Register Pulitzer Prize winner Jay Norwood Darling.

The 1,500 mile journey from Des Moines is well worth it to experience the natural beauty and wildlife of the barrier island in Southwest Florida. But when the shelter’s “favorite visitors” — as Birgie Miller, executive director of “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, Iowans calls it — return, the shelter may seem like a very different place.

Hurricane Ian sheared off mangroves in late September, leveled viewing platforms and littered the park with debris. Nearly a month later, the refuge is still closed indefinitely while damage assessments and clean-up efforts continue.

“I just can’t believe what happened out here,” said Toni Westland, the shelter’s park ranger.

Westland said the aftermath of Ian was unlike any other storm she’s experienced in her 20 years as a park ranger in Southwest Florida. The 155 mph winds ripped apart roofs, snapped telephone poles in half and blew mountains of debris around. Then the storm surge, up to 10 feet high, engulfed the island and surrounding coastal areas in the sea, inundating homes, businesses and wildlife habitats and leaving a trail of dead fish.

Despite the devastation, Miller and Westland both have hope for the future. As she surveyed the refuge, Miller said she saw a sliver of life. A mother raccoon scurried past on a nearby tree, clutching her baby in her mouth.

“The beauty of wild animals is that they are resilient,” she said.

That moment gave Miller confidence that Darling’s vision on Sanibel Island will endure.

Who was “Ding” Darling?

Born in Michigan in 1876 to parents Clara Woolson Darling and Marc Warner Darling, Darling moved to Sioux City in 1885 when his father, a minister, took over a new church. As a boy, Darling dreamed of becoming a doctor. He was also a talented artist who took sketch pads and pencils with him everywhere.

After graduating from Beloit (Wisconsin) College with a degree in biology in 1900, he took a job as a reporter for the Sioux City Journal; shortly thereafter he switched to editorial cartooning.

In 1906, the same year that he married Genevieve Pendleton of Sioux City, Darling began a long association with the Des Moines Register, with only a brief departure to live and work in New York City from 1911 to 1913. He preferred to live in Des Moines and worked for the register until his formal retirement in 1949.

As an editorial cartoonist, Darling had few peers. Two of his cartoons – among the 20,000 produced in his long career – earned him Pulitzer Prizes in 1924 and 1943. Darling’s nickname was originally an abbreviation of his last name: D’ing. Beginning in 1917, Darling’s cartoons were syndicated by the New York Tribune and eventually distributed by as many as 150 newspapers.

Darling began reading half a dozen newspapers each day “to digest the spirit of the world.” He had a sharp mind and was politically astute. Darling is perhaps best known for his January 7, 1919 cartoon, “The Long, Long Trail,” at the time of Teddy Roosevelt’s death.

Later in Des Moines, the Darlings lived with their son John and daughter Mary in a model home at 2320 Terrace Drive, but spent the winters at their home on Captiva Island, Florida.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put Darling—a passionate conservationist—in charge of the US Biological Survey, the predecessor of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. During his tenure, Darling designed the country’s first Federal Duck Stamp, which to date remains the only postage stamp used as a tool to protect wildlife. Darling, who is often credited with founding the national wildlife conservation system in the United States, helped raise $20 million for wildlife projects and worked to purchase and set aside 4.5 million acres for national sanctuaries, of which there are now over 560 reportedly across the country the EWS.

“[He] understood and appreciated the importance of conservation,” said Miller.

The beloved darling died of a heart condition in 1962 and was buried in Sioux City. After his death, the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge, located near the Darling family home on Captiva Island, was renamed in his honor.

An exhibit dedicated to Darling at the shelter’s visitor center was undamaged during September’s hurricane, Miller said, although the building sustained significant damage and is still without power and air conditioning. The company’s offices on the first floor of the building were completely flooded.

While the sanctuary recovers, Westland said Darling’s mission to protect and preserve the remains is at the forefront of her efforts.

“I think he would be happy that his legacy continues. Wildlife is resilient, it’s incredible, and we have the ability to rebuild,” she said.

More:You know these famous Iowans? From Elijah Wood to characters like Hawkeye, there are quite a few

Iowa Red Cross volunteers help in Florida

Before Hurricane Ian struck the coasts of Southwest Florida in late September, Leslie Schaffer and her team of volunteers from the American Red Cross Chapter in Iowa were already preparing to help. Schaffer was one of 25 volunteers from the Iowa-Nebraska area who went to southwest Florida to provide shelter and food for those affected. Since then, 53 Iowans have responded to the call for help, with more on the way in the coming weeks.

Schaffer helped operate two emergency shelters in the greater Fort Myers area and helped provide shelter and food to over 1,000 people, many of whom lost everything in the storm. In addition to running the shelters and communicating with local officials, Schaffer helped lead special missions to ensure the health and safety of people in the area, including a trip to then-isolated Sanibel Island.

Schaffer is a Red Cross veteran who has served in countless disaster areas during her 17 years of service, including after Hurricane Ida in Louisiana last year. But as she drove down the debris-strewn streets of Sanibel with the local fire department, Schaffer described a scene of “total devastation,” unlike anything she’d seen before.

“This was definitely the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen, and it really wiped out entire neighborhoods, entire communities, to the point where it will never be the same,” she said.

While in Sanibel, Schaffer said she caught a glimpse of the Darling Wildlife Refuge and thought back to the original Darling cartoon, which was created as a tribute to the Red Cross and hangs on the wall of her Des Moines office.

Looking ahead, Schaffer said the region has a long road to recovery and encourages all Iowans who wish to volunteer to visit

More:Cedar Rapids’ Willie Ray Fairley is bringing his famous barbecue to Florida’s hurricane recovery zone

Preserve the past while looking to the future

Standing in the ruins of the former offices of the Darling Wildlife Society on Sanibel, Westland holds a stack of Darling’s original maps and drawings he sent to friends over the holiday, now damp and stained.

But Westland refuses to address the negatives. Instead, she’s grateful for all of the history that survived.

Three months before the storm, Westland said she sent many of Darling’s original works and artifacts, including his drafting table and glasses, to FSW’s National Conservation Training Center for archiving.

“I’ve worked here for 20 years and I love him and his family,” she said. “…thank god we got that stuff out and now it’s being saved forever.”

Both Miller and Westland said it could take months or even up to a year for the island and refuge to recover and reopen to the general public. Still, they are both determined to live Darling’s vision and continue to promote conservation in Southwest Florida.

This week, the society will resume its “mission-critical work” through the Wildlife on Wheels initiative, which is providing schools in five counties in Southwest Florida with a 36-foot trailer-mounted mobile classroom. Westland said the society also plans to promote its annual JN Ding Darling cartoon contest, in which elementary school students submit their own Darling-inspired cartoons.

Westland said the refuge and its volunteers are also curating mindfulness and meditation programs for Sanibel residents, many of whom have spent the past few weeks tirelessly cleaning their homes and helping their neighbors.

“Ding would want that — for us to investigate further,” Westland said.

As for the retreat itself, Miller said she’s confident it will survive and one day soon welcome visitors from around the world again to enjoy its serene natural landscapes.

“One day it will be … again an amazing place for people to understand the importance of land and conservation,” she said.

More:Iowa companies are sending aid to victims of Hurricane Ian in southwest Florida

Information from USA Today and the Des Moines Register archives was used in this article.

Francesca Block is a breaking news reporter at the Des Moines Register. Reach them at [email protected] or on Twitter at @francescablock3.

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