Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Prizewinner, breadwinner

DEFIANCE - To Terry Ryan, the tiny white house on Washington Avenue looks the same as it did when she grew up there, from the screened-in porch to the four narrow bedrooms upstairs.

But the Ryans don't live there any more. Gone are the 10 children, with their slamming doors, teasing, and arguing. Their father's alcoholic rages have gone silent.

And their mother is gone from the living room, where she sat on a threadbare couch in the evenings, a pencil tucked behind her ear, a notebook in her hand. She sat there thinking, rehearsing the kinds of clever, lighthearted phrases that used to win advertising contests. There she invented the jingles that kept the family fed from month to month.

Between 1953 and 1965 Mrs. Ryan won hundreds of contests, filling the little Defiance house with appliances, clothes, and food. She won two cars and thousands of dollars in cash - enough to buy the Washington Avenue house and stave off bill collectors.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less is Terry Ryan's new book about her late mother, Evelyn, a woman who used her gift for writing poems, slogans, and jingles to transform the lives of her financially strapped family.

“It was as if she had a direct connection to God,'' said Terry Ryan, a technical writer and cartoonist who lives in San Francisco. “She always came through when we needed her the most.''

Evelyn Lehman was 23 years old, a columnist at the Sherwood Chronicle when she met Leo “Kelly” Ryan.

Evelyn was smart and sassy. Kelly was outgoing, especially after a few drinks. She was valedictorian of Sherwood High School in 1931. He was a blue-collar guy who worked at Defiance Screw Machine Products.

She was pregnant when the couple married in 1936. Two years later she was pregnant again. The couple continued having children: Lea Anne, Richard, Fred, Roger, Bruce, Terry, Mike, Barbara, Betsy, and Dave, each born almost two years after the last.

But their home was not a picture of domestic bliss.

Mr. Ryan made $90 a week. He spent about a third of it on beer and whiskey. In the 1940s and 1950s few women worked outside the home, so the resourceful mother turned her latent writing talent to contests.

She had dabbled in writing contests when she was single. But now they were a necessity.

Mrs. Ryan entered hundreds of contests each year, winning many just in the nick of time. When a television and a toaster broke down, others arrived within days. The dollars she won in poetry contests paid utility, repair, and school-supply bills. Terry recalled a particularly bleak Christmas morning, when none of the children expected any gifts. But Mrs. Ryan opened her ``magic door'' - a bedroom closet - and pulled out one gift after another. They were contest prizes she'd squirreled away for months.

“She won stuff when we needed it the most,” said her youngest child, Dave, the only one of the Ryans to remain in Defiance. “She was gifted at what she did. I just sort of took it for granted, because she had been winning them pretty much forever.”

The house became a contest-entry factory. Kitchen cabinets were crammed with shoeboxes full of entry blanks and labels she was saving for future use. No empty can or jar was tossed in the garbage until the label had been soaked off in the sink.

She entered single contests dozens of times, using variations on her name, her husband's name, and her children's names. Then she would wait. Sometimes she would go months without winning. At other times “you are a winner” letters and calls were everyday events in the Ryan household.

“She made things happen,” recalled Pat Walter, a high school friend of Terry Ryan. “She took lemons and made lemonade and shared it with everybody.”

To the community the Ryans were the typical American family. Dad worked. Mom stayed at home. The children had plenty of friends.

But inside the house was a different story. No one knew what kind of mood Mr. Ryan would bring home from work. He drank and swore, threatened his wife and children, and sometimes was physically abusive. The children did not bring their friends home to play. Once Mrs. Ryan ended up in the hospital after her husband shoved her to the dining room floor.

Dave Ryan said his older sister's book portrays their home life accurately, including his father's drinking and violence.

“I had a happy childhood,” he said. “I wouldn't have traded it. Most of the things I've read in there actually did happen. I'm not really overjoyed about that, but it was truthful.”

Divorce was out of the question, Terry Ryan said.

“She felt, especially in those days, that when you married somebody that was it. You stayed with them for your whole life. There really wasn't an option. But again it was sort of a conundrum because she would never give up one of the kids she had. And as you can tell, we all adored her too. Thank God we had her, because she really saved our lives.''

In the 1950s and 1960s, manufacturers conducted skill contests to promote products ranging from soap to station wagons. Typically, entrants would be asked to write a poem or a 25-word essay explaining why they liked the product.

Terry Ryan writes that “companies sponsored contests for two reasons: to acquire new advertising ideas from the public and to sell more products.”

In those days most contest entries required a proof-of-purchase label, unlike today's sweepstakes and random giveaways.

“Fifty thousand contest entries represented 50,000 purchases that might not have occurred otherwise,” Ms. Ryan continues. “Contesting was big business for both sponsors and winners.”

Dortha Schaefer, a Paulding County resident who befriended Evelyn Ryan through their mutual interest in contests, said there was an art to crafting a winning verse.

One secret to producing a winner was to include “red mittens,” something that would catch the eye of the judges, she said.

“It was something in your entry that would spark it up, make it different than anyone else's,” Mrs. Schaefer said. “Maybe for a last line you'd coin a word.”

During this time Mrs. Ryan formed a club with Mrs. Schaefer and other area “contesters'' called the Affadaisies, a take-off on the affidavits sent out by companies to notify possible contest winners. They shared stories and tips.

Mrs. Schaefer, who lives in Payne, Ohio, said she honed her skills by taking a correspondence course on how to write contest entries. She won a jukebox, television sets, toys, and fishing gear.

The winnings came in handy, but they weren't her main motivation for entering.

“I was at home with my seven children, just like Evelyn was with her 10 kids,” she said. “It gave me something to do at night while my husband worked second shift. My husband was a good provider. But I had the joy of winning. I couldn't wait for the mailman each day.”

The Ryans celebrated hundreds of small wins, toasters and ten-dollar bills. But the big wins stand out the most, Terry Ryan said. They always came at the family's darkest moments.

In 1953 the Ryans and their nine children were told to vacate their two-bedroom rented house - the landlord wanted it for a family member. Just about then, with her tenth baby on the way, Mrs. Ryan won the grand prize in a Western Auto contest - a washer and a dryer, a new bicycle, and $5,000 - money she used to buy the house on Washington Avenue.

In a “Name that Sandwich” contest in 1961 Mrs. Ryan won the grand prize, which included a jukebox, a trip to New York to appear on the Merv Griffin Show, and a Triumph sports car. She sold the car and the jukebox to pay bills.

When they had no food, she won a shopping spree at a local supermarket.

Then there was the Dr Pepper soft drink contest in 1965.

Unbeknownst to the family Mr. Ryan had taken out a second mortgage on the house - and it was coming due in a month. When the day of reckoning arrived, Mr. Ryan drank himself into a stupor. His wife pleaded with the bank, but to no avail. Mrs. Ryan resigned herself to sending her younger children to live with relatives.

But three days before their eviction, a Dr Pepper vice president phoned to tell Mrs. Ryan she had won the soft drink company's “The Time of Your Life Contest.'' The grand prizes were two watches, a 1965 Mustang, a trip for two to Switzerland, and $3,400 - enough to stop the foreclosure.

The family was safe. Again.

“From then on we knew there could never be a problem bigger than Mom's ability to solve it,'' Terry Ryan said.

Mrs. Ryan never won another big prize. Writing contests faded, replaced by sweepstakes in which winners were chosen at random. Companies found the sweepstakes to be cheaper and more effective at generating sales.

Times were changing in the United States in the mid 1960s. Vietnam War protesters questioned authority. Women's liberation made it OK for women to work.

As for Mrs. Ryan, she took a job as a sales clerk in the local J.C. Penney store, where she worked until she retired in 1983.

Meanwhile, her husband's drinking continued until the mid 1970s, when he found out he had diabetes. Doctors had to amputate his leg.

He spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair in his kitchen, listening to ball games on the radio. When he died in 1983, he left $60,000 to his wife - money he had been saving from his pension checks.

“He never told anybody about the money. Nobody could believe it,'' Terry Ryan said. “He redeemed himself.''

But Mrs. Ryan never used the money. She continued writing poetry - she was named The Blade's poet laureate in 1974 - while her children moved away and started their own families.

Two of her sons - Richard and Fred - played minor league baseball in the Detroit Tigers organization. Most of them went to college and have careers. One son is an engineer. Another is a lawyer and former assistant district attorney in Colorado. One daughter is a hospice nurse.

Dave Ryan, a worker at the General Motors foundry in Defiance, said that after years together at 801 Washington, he and his siblings seldom reunite anymore.

In the last 35 years the 10 have gathered just a handful of times: for their father's funeral, and then for their mother's 80th birthday in 1993.

“They're spread out all across the country, and people got things to do, and they got their own lives,” Dave Ryan said.

Mrs. Ryan called her children in 1998 and told them she had breast cancer.

They all returned once more - her truckload of birds, as she called them - and spent several weeks with her until she died.

A day after her death they went into her bedroom and found a cedar chest full of papers. To their surprise she had saved everything from their report cards to contest entries and poems.

From that moment Terry Ryan knew she had to write her mother's story.

``My brothers, sisters, and I have been telling her story to anyone who would listen for decades. I'm not sure everybody believed us.''

Now they do.

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