The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
In 1794, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne built a fort on the banks of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers, declaring, “I defy the Indians, the English, and all the devils in hell to take it!” One hundred sixty years later, his spirit lives on in the town of Defiance, Ohio, in the resourceful wife of an alcoholic and mother of 10, who pays for her kids’ glasses and school books with contest winnings.
Terry Ryan’s The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less is the true story of how the author’s mother held her family together with ingenuity, determination, and a steady stream of small cash prizes from national advertising contests. Evelyn Ryan stands up to her increasingly abusive husband, her kids’ Catholic school teachers, and bill collectors – without a regular paycheck or driver’s license, just a knack for winning. Often her prizes arrive in the knick of time, like the big win she learns of the day the second mortgage (which her husband took out secretly and spent on booze) comes due.
The book is as much a chronicle of the corporate contest era of the ’50s and ’60s as it is a memoir of one big family and a tiny Midwestern town. Evelyn Ryan wins suitcases, jukeboxes, flatware, appliances, sports cars, and a trip to NYC to appear on Merv Griffin’s Saturday Prom show by completing advertising jingles and mailing them in with box tops and labels. The book is sprinkled with contest rules, tips from her fellow “contesters” for impressing the various judging firms, and dozens of Mrs. Ryan’s entries, like this one for Hormel’s “Spamericks” contest:
The boat and the basket went over the dam
But Dad is our hero—he rescued the Spam!
Or this one, for which Mrs. Ryan won $10 for completing the first line:
I’m glad I use Dial
Though my reign’s in the kitchen
I needn’t pour perfume
To keep quite bewitchin’.
In addition to entries for chewing gum and aluminum foil contests, she also sold poems and stories to local newspapers. One of my favorites recorded in the book is “Hippopotapoem:”
Behold the hippopotamus
Bestowing hippo kisses
Upon a hippopotamiss
Who’s not his hippomissus.
But he’s no hippocrit, is he,
Because the hippopotamiss
Is his little hipposister.
The poems and contest entries are woven into the fabric of the Ryan family’s life, sometimes inspired by the crises or little joys they experience. Often the kids get involved, too, jotting their own entries in the contest notebook Mom leaves open on the kitchen table.
Mrs. Ryan’s optimistic and tenacious philosophy of living permeates their household—literally. One of the stories Terry recounts is her mother’s response when Playtex discontinues her favorite girdle. She refuses to find a new style, and after unsuccessfully attempting to persuade the company to continue production, she decides to patch up the one she has left by melting scraps of others to it with her iron. Each time she did her “ironing,” the kids had to open all the windows in the house to eliminate the stench of burning rubber!
Evelyn Ryan teaches her children perseverance, creativity, and forgiveness. Her example takes, and they grow up to be professional baseball players, business owners, a nurse, an engineer, an assistant attorney general, a drama teacher, and a writer (Terry, who in addition to writing this memoir also consulted on the film adaptation that released last year starring Julianne Moore as her mother).
The prose wanders at times, but Evelyn Ryan’s story as told by her daughter is both entertaining and inspiring (and all the more interesting to me since I grew up 60 miles from Defiance). It’s a testimony to the variety of creative outlets available to the human spirit, and the impact a woman has on her husband, her children, and her community.