Waco Cotton Palace King 2020

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Ross Hedrick Darden

Pictured: Photo by Doug Fitzjarrell

Ross Hedrick Darden will be crowned Cotton Palace King at the 50th annual Waco Cotton Palace on Friday, April 24, 2020 at Waco Hall. His family’s royal roots go back almost 50 years, when Ross’ cousin, William Prather Davis, was king in 1971.

Ross was a royal escort in 1980.

Ross, son of the late Jean Hedrick Darden and William Edward Darden, Jr., is a lifelong Wacoan. He’s married to Carla Maynard Darden.

The Dardens have two children: Lynn Alexandra Darden graduated from Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business and lives in Austin where she works as a senior account executive at one of the top public relations firms in Texas. She recently became engaged to John Kenneth Durbin, Jr., of San Antonio, and they will be married in Waco in the Fall. Wyatt Sterling Darden graduated from Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business and lives in Dallas where he works as a financial analyst in the energy industry. Lynn and Wyatt were royal attendants in 2003 when cousin, Donald Benjamin Davis, was King. In 2012, Lynn was crowned maid of honor and Wyatt was an escort in 2014.

“I am deeply humbled to serve as King of Waco Cotton Palace in its 50th anniversary year,” Ross said. “I look forward to sharing the history of our community, which is currently experiencing exciting times with all of its growth, activities and tourism. I would like to thank all of the chairmen, committees and volunteers who put so much effort into making Waco Cotton Palace Pageant such a wonderful and memorable event. I especially thank the founding chairman, Margaret Cannon Boyce Brown for restoring the Waco Cotton Palace Pageant to what it is today.”

Ross’ first appearance in Cotton Palace was as a third grade St. Paul’s student in the classic may pole scene.

“Carla and I were in another historical scene of the production soon after we were married,” he said. “We have been sponsors of out-of-town court participants throughout the years as well as royal reception hosts.”

Carla has been on numerous Cotton Palace committees and served as secretary to the general board.

“I have enjoyed my participation with each committee,” Carla said. “The committees have allowed me to work with long-time friends and meet new ones. I have especially enjoyed being directly involved with the court participants, visiting with them and learning about their future goals.”

Born in Waco, Ross graduated from Richfield High School in 1980. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in economics from the University of Texas at Austin. Ross and Carla met in Waco and married in 1990 at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in West.

“Carla and I met through mutual friends after seeing Ben Vereen perform a show at The Waco Hippodrome and were married the next year,” Ross said. “We will be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary this year.”

Ross is president of Darden Building Materials, supplier of brick, stone, flooring, windows, doors and fireplaces for residential homes and commercial projects across Central Texas.

“Darden Building Materials was founded by my grandfather, William E. Darden, Sr. We have been in business serving Central Texas for over 100 years,” Ross said. “The business was originally located in East Waco on the 600 block of Elm Street, but burned to the ground in a massive fire in July of 1964. My father relocated to our existing location at 200 Otis Drive in 1965.”

When Ross moved back to Waco after college, he was privileged to work closely with his father and to be mentored by him for many years before his death, he said. Ross became president of the company after his father’s passing in 1998. He founded an additional company, Darden Commercial Flooring, in 2017.

“My father has been and will forever be my role model,” Ross said. “I followed in my father’s footsteps as a graduate of the University of Texas. Not only was he an upstanding gentleman, family man and involved in his community, but he also showed great leadership and sacrifice as a Naval Lieutenant Commander in WWII. After the war, my father served on The University of Texas Board of Regents from 1947 to 1953, and to this day is the youngest board member ever appointed.”

Ross fondly remembers some of his father’s passions being growing Camelia trees in his greenhouse and quail hunting with his bird dog Pointers, which he raised and trained.

“Some of my favorite memories are of attending UT football games and going to South Texas to deer and quail hunt with my father,” he said. “My passion for the outdoors developed from time spent with him.”

Dignity, being cordial to others, independence and unconditional kindness are qualities Ross said he learned from both his parents.

“I have a strong history of career-oriented and successful ancestors who worked hard and excelled at their professions,” Ross said. “They were exemplary models for me to live up to. These imprinted values and qualities have been a tremendous help to me both socially and professionally.”

So it’s no surprise that Ross considers respect, honesty and integrity to be the most important qualities a person can have.

“In the field of business I am in, these traits are vital,” Ross said. “Waco is a close-knit community, so in turn, treating people with those qualities is of upmost importance to me.”

Ross is currently a board member of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. He’s a member of the Heart of Texas Builders Association, National Association of Home Builders, Centex Associated General Contractors of America. He has participated with the American Cancer Society Cattle Baron’s Ball, coached with Lake Air Little League Baseball and served on the board of the Waco YMCA and Vanguard College Preparatory School.

“I am honored to serve on the board of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum,” Ross said. “The history, the tremendous collection of artifacts and legendary stories are fascinating. The Texas Rangers are a world-renowned law enforcement agency and Waco is fortunate to have this museum that displays and informs the legacy of the Texas Rangers.”

The Dardens are passionate about sharing their resources with organizations that help people feel at home.

“Being a building material distributor, it comes naturally for me to lean first towards helping charities and organizations that need home product donations,” Ross said. “The Habitat for Humanity Restore, NeighborWorks Waco and St. Jude’s Children’s Waco Home are a few that fall into that category.”

Ross said he believes everyone who is able should be active and supportive in their community in order to help it flourish.

“There are so many needy causes and struggles in every city no matter the size,” he said. “It is very important to learn volunteerism at an early age as well as teach young adults that no matter how big or small their efforts or contributions are, they will help make an impact.”

He added that he believes young people can learn community service through Cotton Palace.

“Cotton Palace participants have the opportunity to observe and learn from all of the volunteers involved with the entire production and develop leadership skills by being ambassadors to their cities,” he said. “My hope is that this will inspire them to become involved at their college or communities after they graduate and begin their adult life.”

Ross said he enjoys reading, traveling, working outside, hunting, fishing and exercising on the Peloton bike. He added that going to live concerts of all types of music genres is probably his favorite hobby. He has a concert ticket stub collection that dates back more than 40 years. Ross and Carla also spend a lot of time boating on Lake Waco with family and friends.

“Carla and I enjoy traveling and love exploring new cultures and cuisines,” Ross said. “Our family recently took a trip to Spain and Portugal and we were amazed with the countries’ rich histories and beautiful architecture. We also enjoy visiting and hiking the national parks and plan to visit Yosemite and Zion soon.”

But it’s Waco that Ross loves best.

“Waco’s size and sense of community make it a wonderful place to live,” he said. “Waco has been a great place to grow up and raise a family. I am very proud to call Waco my home and have deep roots in this wonderful community. Not only has Waco been a great place to live, it’s the friends and people that we have met living here that make Waco a very special place.”

On any given weekend, you might find Ross and Carla visiting Cameron Park, shopping at the farmer’s market or walking along the Brazos River viewing the new Waco Sculpture Zoo.

Ross said it is an honor to represent Waco and Cotton Palace as king.

“I hope to convey that Waco is a vibrant and beautiful city rich in history and culture and with so much to offer,” he said. “I know that our guests will be completely amazed with the people and the places they visit and will see Waco in a new light they never imagined.”

Ross said he’s looking forward to getting to know the many guests and to show them the beauty of Waco and the friendliness of its people.

“I especially hope that locals and out-of-town guests will take away from the Waco Cotton Palace weekend that Waco is welcoming to everyone and that it is an energetic and thriving community,” Ross said. “I also hope they realize how we proud we are of our community and take away great memories and friendships that last a lifetime.”