The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio : How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio introduces Evelyn Ryan, an enterprising woman who kept poverty at bay with wit, poetry, and perfect prose during the "contest era" of the 1950s and 1960s.
Stepping back into a time when fledgling advertising agencies were active partners with consumers, and everyday people saw possibility in every coupon, Terry Ryan tells how her mother kept the family afloat by writing jingles and contest entries. Mom's winning ways defied the Church, her alcoholic husband, and antiquated views of housewives. To her, flouting convention was a small price to pay when it came to securing a happy home for her six sons and four daughters. Evelyn, who would surely be a Madison Avenue executive if she were working today, composed her jingles not in the boardroom, but at the ironing board.
By entering contests wherever she found them -- TV, radio, newspapers, direct-mail ads -- Evelyn Ryan was able to win every appliance her family ever owned, not to mention cars, television sets, bicycles, watches, a jukebox, and even trips to New York, Dallas, and Switzerland. But it wasn't just the winning that was miraculous; it was the timing. If a toaster died, one was sure to arrive in the mail from a forgotten contest. Days after the bank called in the second mortgage on the house, a call came from the Dr Pepper company: Evelyn was the grand-prize winner in its national contest -- and had won enough to pay the bank.
Graced with a rare appreciation for life's inherent hilarity, Evelyn turned every financial challenge into an opportunity for fun and profit. From her frenetic supermarket shopping spree -- worth $3,000 today -- to her clever entries worthy of Erma Bombeck, Dorothy Parker, and Ogden Nash, the story of this irrepressible woman whose talents reached far beyond her formidable verbal skills is told in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio with an infectious joy that shows how a winning spirit will triumph over the poverty of circumstance.
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Simon & Schuster
April 02, 2002
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Excerpt from The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan
Our new home at 801 Washington looked un-furnished even after we moved in. We had no money to buy appliances, let alone furniture. But in the months after winning the Western Auto contest, Mom entered a slew of other contests and won enough things to make the house seem functional: an automatic coffeemaker, a Deepfreeze home freezer, a Westinghouse refrigerator, a Motorola radio, two wall clocks, three wool blankets, a box of household tools, a set of kitchen appliances, and three pairs of Arthur Murray shoes.
Many of these prizes were not what Mom had been aiming for. The wall clocks, for example, were seventh prizes in a contest whose first prize was a station wagon. She was always trying to replace the dilapidated family Chevy with something a bit more dependable. Just to start the car most mornings required a ten-person push so Dad could pop the clutch and rumble off to work in a cloud of blue smoke. Even so, the two wall clocks didn't go to waste. Mom gave one to our aunt Lucy and hung the other in the dining room, where it covered a baseball-sized dent of missing plaster that no one would ever own up to.
The Westinghouse refrigerator, though, was a first prize in an aluminum foil contest, for which Mom submitted this 25-words-or-less entry on why she liked using Alcoa Wrap:
I like strong Alcoa Wrap because Alcoa resists "all thumbs" handling -- stays whole to keep juices and flavors IN, ashes OUT, of cookout meals; deserves merit badge for simplifying Scout cookery.
The Deepfreeze home freezer, also a first prize, was gigantic -- four feet high, five feet wide, and three feet deep -- so big it would have been more appropriate in a restaurant or an army mess hall. It looked very empty with just a single gallon of ice cream sitting in the bottom of it. Most of us couldn't even reach the container without falling in. But my mother was ingenious. If we needed clothes, she made them. If we needed a freezer, she won one. If we needed food to fill the new freezer, she was going to win that too.