Actor Tom Milligan to portray legendary ‘Ding’ Darling

Historical society program at museum Sunday afternoon

~by Chuck Offenburger for the Greene County Historical Society

Actor Tom Milligan portraying Grant Wood  | GCNO file photo

Tom Milligan, an outstanding professional actor from Des Moines, has twice before performed one-person programs in Jefferson portraying notable figures of Iowa history – former U.S. Vice-President Henry A. Wallace and legendary artist Grant Wood. He’ll bring another one back to life here this Sunday afternoon, April 23 – J.N. “Ding” Darling, the Des Moines Register cartoonist who won two Pulitzer Prizes, was an acclaimed artist and a nationally-recognized conservationist.

“The Art of Conservation: A Visit with Ding Darling” will be presented free at 2 pm at the Greene County Historical Museum. Milligan will appear in-character, carrying on a chat with the audience, even answering questions as Darling would have. 

J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling

Darling was born in Michigan but grew up in Sioux City. His began his work in journalism in 1900 as both a reporter and cartoonist with the Sioux City Journal. He joined the Des Moines Register & Leader in 1906, and for the next 13 years bounced back and forth between the Register & Tribune and two different newspapers in New York City. In 1919, he settled at the Register and finished his career there, winning his Pulitzers in 1924 and 1943. His cartoons from Des Moines were published by newspapers across the nation and beyond. He died in 1962.

As a result of Darling’s long advocacy for conservation, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Sanibel Island is named after him. A lake in Iowa, a lake in North Dakota and a conservation center in West Virginia are also named for him.

“One thing different about this Ding Darling play from the others I’ve performed about historical figures is that I wrote this one myself,” Milligan said. “It was commissioned by the Humanities Iowa program and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and I worked on it all last summer. We premiered it at the Iowa State Fair last August, and I’ve performed it about 15 times since then all over the state. It’s done real well. I know we’ve got bookings for it well into 2018, and there’s interest beyond Iowa because of how well-known Ding Darling was as a conservationist.”

The idea to do a one-person play about Darling actually came from a strong conservationist in Florida.

“This man in Florida knows Ding Darling’s grandson, and the family had expressed a concern that Ding’s legacy is naturally fading as the years go by,” Milligan said. “He called the DNR in Iowa and asked if they’d be interested in sponsoring some kind of show. The DNR folks said they liked the idea, but since they don’t really do theatrical work, they referred the idea to Humanities Iowa. The other one-person shows I’ve done about historic Iowa figures have been part of the Humanities Iowa ‘Speaker Series’ for several years, so they contacted me.”

Milligan said he grew up hearing about Darling’s work as a cartoonist at the Des Moines Register.

“A whole lot of school classes made field trips to the Register back when I was a kid, and we all learned about the newspaper’s cartoonists,” he said. “Ding Darling was certainly famous in Iowa for that, but I got a whole new appreciation for him when I researched his life for this play. His work as a conservationist was just as important, maybe more so, as his cartooning and other artwork.”

The play is being sponsored here by the Greene County Historical Society, with assistance from Humanities Iowa.

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