Milligan to embody Iowa's conservational cartoonist
"Ducks don't vote," said actor Tom Milligan.
Actually, Milligan was quoting Jay "Ding" Darling, a Pulitzer-winning cartoonist and conservationist from Iowa. Darling — who used a contraction of his surname for his signature pseudonym, according to some — began cartooning in the early 1900s and became a major figure in several conservation groups. At times, these two aspects of his character blended. Milligan will be borrowing Darling's persona for a little less than an hour starting at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Milford Memorial Library. The actor has worked as a theater artist for 45 years in Iowa, including time at several Des Moines area venues, and has enjoyed a 16 year association with Humanities Iowa. Milligan has been performing his one-man show, "The Art of Conservation: A Visit with Ding Darling," for approximately 2½ years in an effort to showcase Darling's impact on not only Iowa but the country.
"It started when I was approached by Humanities Iowa and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in May of 2016 to write, produce and portray in a production about Ding Darling," Milligan said.
The show premiered at the Iowa State Fair — a not uncommon subject of Ding's work — in August of that year, and Milligan said he's been doing shows ever since. Milligan said Darling's story has gained interest not only in the Hawkeye state but across the country. The actor's online schedule for the year lists 15 performances in Iowa alone.
Milligan said Humanites Iowa and the DNR received a grant to produce the show, and he was intrigued at the prospect of portraying Darling.
"I have a history of doing one-person shows of famous Iowans," Milligan said. "Ding Darling has always been someone who's been in the back of my mind."
Milligan has portrayed such famous Iowans as artist Grant Wood and Franklin Roosevelt's Iowa-born Vice President Henry Wallace. As a resident of Des Moines, Milligan said he was familiar with Darling's editorial cartoons, but wasn't quite as familiar with the artist's conservation efforts.
"A lot of people give Teddy Roosevelt — which is 100 percent accurate — credit for starting the conservation effort in the United States, but it was really Ding Darling who picked it up from Roosevelt and ran with it," Milligan said.
Darling was appointed to a small committee in 1934 by then President Franklin Roosevelt, according to information from the University of Iowa. The three-man panel was tasked with studying the conservation of migratory waterfowl. Milligan noted this appointment came with a bit of tension. Darling was an engrained Republican and Roosevelt the Democratic champion of the era. But Milligan said Mother Nature held Darling's heartstrings more than the party of Lincoln ever could.
"Some issues have to be bipartisan and that was one of them for Ding Darling," Milligan said. "For the good of conservation, you have to put those (other) issues aside."
The same year, Darling was appointed Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey and initiated the Duck Stamp Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The act required hunters over 15 to purchase a federal hunting stamp, which funded he Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. In addition, Darling used his artistic skills to design the first stamp. Beginning in 1949, the stamp's design was updated. Now an annual design competition gives new artists a chance to continue Darling's legacy of art and conservation. The Fish and Wildlife Service says the competition is the only contest of its kind sponsored by the Federal Government.
Milligan said Darling was an avid hunter and outdoorsman who realized from an early age the importance of conserving nature — as well as the consequences of exhausting natural resources. Milligan noted Darling's famed cartoons, though not always centered on conservation, had a large portion of the public's collective ear.
"He had a huge platform as an editorial cartoonist," Milligan said. "He did 6,300 cartoons for the Des Moines Register alone."
After Darling retired from the Des Moines Register in 1949, he gifted some 6,000 of his 22-by-28-inch drawings to the University of Iowa. The University now serves as administrator for the collection's image rights on behalf of the J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation. Today, the cartoons have been digitally scanned and can be viewed online through the university's library.
Darling passed away in February of 1962, leaving a legacy Milligan retraced in preparation for his role as the influential figure. Milligan said he approaches each of his historical one-man shows from the personal perspective of his subject, identifying five to six important "tentpoles" of their lives. The actor said he drew from a wealth of biographies and other informational sources.
"I actually found a lot of really interesting quotes he had given, and I found where those quotes fit the subjects, and I write around that," Milligan said. "The trick is how to make that interesting."
The production's set resembles Darling's office during his time at the Des Moines Register. Milligan will talk directly to the audience as he moves about the cluttered space and applies pen and ink to his latest work on the drawing table. Milligan hopes the scene's accuracy will bring Darlin's personality to life for a new generation.
"It's trying to figure out how to get a whole lot of life into an hour," Milligan said.
However, he stressed the entirety of Darling's life is impossible to sum up in such a short amount of time. Rather, Milligan said his performance is meant to spark an interest in audiences to learn more about Darling's life and, in Thursday's case, use the resources available in the Milford Library.
"Good theater should educate and entertain at the same time," Milligan said.
Overall, he hopes to convey a message of cooperation, especially regarding environmental issues.
"This conservation, saving all these natural resources — one person can't do it alone," Milligan said.
"The Art of Conservation: A Visit with Ding Darling" is sponsored by Humanities Iowa and Friends of the Milford Memorial Library. The event is free and open to the public.
The program has been postponed until Thursday, April 5, at 2 p.m., due to predicted weather.