The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Lessby Terry Ryan
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. Evelyn'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 raising her… See more details below
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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. Evelyn'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 raising her six sons and four daughters. Graced with a rare appreciation for life's inherent hilarity, Evelyn turned every financial challenge into an opportunity for fun and profit. The story of this irrepressible woman, whose clever entries are worthy of Erma Bombeck, Dorothy Parker, and Ogden Nash, is told by her daughter Terry with an infectious joy that shows how a winning spirit will always triumph over poverty.
Book of the Week People Nabs first prize in the memoir genre.
The New Yorker This plucky middle American chronicle, starring an unsinkable, relentlessly resourceful mother and her Madison Avenue-style magic, succeeds on many levels as a tale of family spirit triumphing over penury, as a history of mid-century American consumerism, and as a memoir about a woman who was both ahead of her time and unable to escape it.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter Three: Supermarket Spree
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" handlingstays 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 giganticfour feet high, five feet wide, and three feet deepso 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.
In a Seabrook Farms contest, Mom was awarded a shopping spree at the local Big Chief Supermarket. She submitted her 25-word entry in poem form:
Wide selections, priced to please her;
Scads of Seabrook's in their freezer,
Warmth that scorns the impersonal trend,
Stamps "Big Chief" as the housewife's friend.
A shopping spree in a supermarket was not what anyone else would have considered a major win, but to Mom it was the answer to our prayers. Our aunt Lucy, a bank teller who lived down the road in Bryan, bought a lot of our weekly groceries, but a freezer filled to capacity would relieve Mom's worries about food for months.
Weeks before the scheduled shopping spree, Mom gathered the family around the dining room table to help plan her assault. Dad had fled the scene, increasingly sullen since "Moneybags," his sarcastic nickname for Dick, had won the Western Auto contest.
"Okay," Mom said, "there are some ironclad rules. First, I've got only ten minutes to grab everything I can."
"That's not very long," I said.
"Just stay in the candy aisle," offered Mike.
"Second," she said, "everything has to fit in one shopping cart."
"One?" Betsy said. "I thought each of us would get a cart."
"Third, everything has to be edible."
"Bruce will eat anything," said Rog.
"Open your mouth, Rog," Bruce said, clenching his fist. "I've got your lunch right here."
As they lunged across the table at each other, Mom yelled, "Knock it off, you two! I'm not finished." They sat back down, trading menacing stares as Mom continued.
"Fourth," she said, "only one of everything. I can get different sizes of the same brand, or same sizes of different brands, but only one of each brand and size."
"The list would have been shorter," said Dick, "if they'd listed the things you can have."
"It's still okay," Bub said. "Everything comes in lots of brands and sizes."
"Besides," said Lea Anne, who was home from nursing school for the weekend, "none of the meat packages will weigh exactly the same, so you can at least start there."
"One last thing," Mom said. "I have to fill the cart by myself. No one can help me."
"We don't get to go along?" moaned Barb, expressing the sagging disappointment we all felt. I wasn't the only one with visions of being let loose for a few minutes in aisles filled with potato chips, jelly beans, cupcakes, and ice cream.
"You can come," said Mom, "but you'll have to stay back with the store clerks and the Seabrook representative. What you can help me with is planning how to do it."
We decided that the first step would be mapping out the store, aisle by aisle, so Mom could memorize every inch of the place. The Big Chief Supermarket was huge, about half a football field long. Dad had to join in this timehe was the only one in the family who could drivetaking several of us along to scout it out.
Anybody else in Mom's position might have gone after the usual milk and bread and bologna and ketchup. Not Mom. "Think big," she said. "If I'm going to get a cartload of free food, I'm not going to waste cart space or time going after on-sale chicken parts and fish sticks." (We ate fish sticks almost every Friday night for supper.) "We can ignore the five-pound bags of sugar and gallons of milk, too."
"The Mars bars are on aisle five," said Mike.
"I want you kids to taste chateaubriand, New York steak, lobster, and anything else you've never tried before. Heck, I want to try them too.
"I'll have to grab a token amount of Seabrook's frozen food first," Mom added, ever aware of pleasing the contest sponsors. "But after that I'm heading for the meat department."
The only problem was the shopping cart itself. It looked no bigger than the inside of a large suitcase. Even the bottom rack seemed paltry, barely big enough for a ten-pound sack of potatoes. While we stood over the meat cases at the back of the store, the butcher, Bob Wallen, came out to say hello. Everyone in Defiance, including Bob, had already heard about Mom's upcoming shopping spree.
"If there's any special cut of meat you're interested in, Evelyn," he said, "tell me now, and I'll have it ready ahead of time."
"I'm half afraid I won't have room for everything I want," she said. "The cart is so shallow."
Bob's blue eyes lit up. He came out from around the counter and measured the sides with his knife-scarred hands. "Hey, we can fix that," he said. "I can cut some flat slabs of beef and extra-long sides of bacon. See, you can stand them on end all around the inside edge and make the sides taller."
Now Mom's eyes lit up. "That would double the cart's capacity," she said. "Bob, you're going straight to heaven!"
"This is no ordinary shopping spree, Evelyn," Bob said, a huge grin on his round face. "This is a treasure hunt! You won't have to come back to my counter for a long, long time."
When the day of the shopping spree finally arrived, we were ready. Mom knew exactly what she wanted and where it was in the store. Even so, she was slightly nervous. In the car on the way there, she said, "I wish I had twenty minutes instead of ten. I wish all of you could help me. I wish I had won a station wagon instead of a shopping spree." Then she laughed and said, "Who am I kidding? This is going to be fun."
The shopping spree was scheduled to take place before the store opened for business. Mom had the option of doing it after business hours, but by that time of night Dad would have been too drunk to drive her to the store and too argumentative to be out in public. As our old Chevy pulled into the nearly empty lot on the appointed morning, we could see the store manager, Harvey Ward, the Seabrook executive, who I will call Miles Streeter, and a few clerks waiting just inside the glass door for Mom's arrival. She stepped out of the front passenger seat and into the store, and everybody applauded. Mr. Streeter watched the stream of kids pouring out of the car like clowns out of a Volkswagen.
"How did you all fit in there?" he asked as we trailed into the store after Mom.
"With a shoehorn," Mom laughed, as she pulled a shopping cart from the rack. "They won't get in the way. They're just going to yell out the time every few minutes so I can keep on schedule."
And then an act of kindness occurred, altering the outcome of the day for the Ryan family. Mr. Streeter looked at us and looked again at the rule sheet. He placed his thumb over the line specifying that the shopper couldn't have help. He turned to two of the store clerks, Pauline and Hazel, who had come in early to watch Mom's ten minutes of fame. Both in their sixties, the two women were rooting for her as much as any of us kids were. They also had a better understanding of the store's layout than Mom did, Mr. Streeter knew, and they wore industrial-strength shoes that had run up and down these aisles many times before. "I'm going to turn my back," he told them. "Any help you give Mrs. Ryan in filling the cart won't be seen by me." Everyone's eyes lit up.
Mom tested the cart by rolling it back and forth a few times, making sure she didn't have to fumble around the store on defective wheels. Harvey adjusted his bow tie and held up a stopwatch. Mom's hands gripped the cart handle. She bent forward slightly, standing like an Olympic sprinter waiting for the starting gun.
"Go!" yelled Harvey as he clicked the watch on.
Down the aisle they all flew, Hazel and Pauline following Mom in a trot toward the meat department, where Bob pointed out the prepackaged sheets of beef ribs and baconeven extra-long rolls of salamito use in supporting the sides. Pauline and Hazel held the slabs of meat up in the cart and Mom filled in the center, hauling huge beef and pork roasts, platter-sized steaks, and six-packs of filet mignon out of the case and tossing them into the cart.
"Seven minutes to go!" called Rog from the front of the store.
"I think we should split up," said Mom, her voice a few octaves higher than usual. "I'll take the frozen food aisle. You two hit the European food section."
"What do you want?" Hazel asked, already running toward aisle eight on the heels of Pauline.
"Exotic things!" Mom said. "Expensive things! The good stuff! But only one of each!"
At the front of the store, Bub lifted Betsy up onto his shoulders. "Six minutes, Mommy!" she shouted.
Mom shot through the frozen food aisle like a missile, grabbing game hens and emptying the seafood section of lobster thermidor, crab claws, filet of sole, salmon steaks, halibut, everything but fish sticks. "Absolutely no fish sticks!" yelled Mom, as Pauline and Hazel careened around the corner, arms filled with cans of pâté, mushrooms, caviar, artichoke hearts, blanched asparagus, hollandaise sauce, and who knows what else.
"Three minutes!" shouted Bruce.
Mom wrestled with several quarts of gourmet ice cream. Pauline and Hazel loaded up on frozen broccoli in cheese sauce, lasagna with truffles, bourbon-laced ladyfingers, and French chocolate sauce.
At the one-minute mark, Mike yelled from the front of the store. "Candy in aisle five!" And a barrage of Toblerone chocolates, jars of roasted pumpkin seeds, and several six-, eight-, and twelve-packs of Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars landed atop the piles of meat, frozen food, and canned goods already in the cart.
In the final seconds, as Pauline and Hazel jammed the bottom rack with fresh pineapples and coconuts, Mom tried and failed to balance two family-sized bags of potato chips on the pyramid of cans that was now taller than the meat walls.
"Hurry, Mom!" Barb screamed, as Mom and the cart rocketed out of the produce section on the way to the checkout stand. Giving up trying to weigh the bags of chips down with cans of Finnish sardines as she ran, she grabbed a large candy cane from a Christmas display on her way by and stabbed it through the heart of the bags into a box of frozen bonbons below.
A cheer erupted from the assembled spectators as Mom rounded the magazine racks and nearly catapulted her teetering mountain of goods into the checkout aisle. "Time's up!" yelled Harvey, bringing his stopwatch down with a mighty click.
It was over.
In all, Mom netted $411.44 worth of food (the equivalent of $3,000 today), a fortune in our eyes.
Later we would learn to hide the imported food from him, but that night Dad inexplicably threw a dozen cans through the open back door into the yard.
We sat around the kitchen table, which was piled high with the rest of the canned delicacies, in silence. When Dad finally went to bed, Bruce turned to Mom. "What was that all about?"
"I don't know," she sighed. "He's been drinking."
"What exactly is caviar?" asked Barb.
"Fish eggs," said Mom.
A long silence engulfed the room. It was self-explanatory. No one was going to eat the caviar.
"Do you know that U.S. Army research has shown a relationship between intelligence and a willingness to eat unfamiliar foods?" Mom said.
Except for Mom, nobody would eat the lobster eitherit was just too different from fish sticks.
Copyright © 2001 by Terry Ryan
What People are saying about this
"Nabs first prize in the memoir genre."
People (Book of the Week)
San Francisco Chronicle
"A good-natured memoir as compelling as a commercial jingle."
O, The Oprah Magazine
Meet the Author
Terry Ryan, the sixth of Evelyn Ryan's ten children, was a consultant on the film adaptation of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. She lives in San Francisco, California.
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This is certainly one of the best memoirs I have ever read. Evelyn Ryan's strength is unbelievable; it is her determination that keeps her family from falling apart. It was very interesting to see all the circumstances that woman had to fight against during this time period. I was shocked to see how much dominance husbands had over their wives. If one is not familiar with American history, this book will serve as somewhat of an eye-opener to the role of women. A cult of domesticity becomes very apparent because it is simply expected of women to tend to all of the household needs, and what they do is not even considered work. Studying history certainly enhanced my enjoyment of this book. I really expected that, given its circumstances, this story was going to be depressing. Although some parts were sad, on the whole, the story was very uplifting. It made me appreciate hard work and the value of family. It really made me appreciate my own mother's work in the home as well. I also loved how the multiple facets of "Mother's" and "Dad's" character were shown. Mother could not be strong at all times, and Dad was not a complete monster-he did care for her very much. I believe that this stresses the important lesson that every single person has both flaws and redeeming qualities. The memoir demonstrates that Tuff learns this lesson, because she is the author and she shows positive characteristics about her father. I would honestly recommend this book to anybody. In my opinion, it has everything: good morals, a suspenseful story, and very realistic characters. This is probably because the book is a true story-which, to me, makes it even more compelling. Terry Ryan (Tuff) certainly led a very interesting life, and she captures the ups and downs brilliantly in this book.
I read this book and then watched the movie. I have to say I liked the book better than the movie. This book inspired me to enter more contests and complete more surveys for cash. I always thought it wasn't possible to win contests, but this book has changed my mind. I doubt that I could be as lucky or clever as this lady was, but I have found some fun things to enter for.
Evelyn Ryan, a housewife with ten children, managed to literally keep the wolf from the door with her winning ways. Married to an abusive husband who drank the family's sole income as quickly as he earned it, Evelyn sought help from her priest. He advised her to sit tight. A nun suggested she take in laundry. More laundry was all she needed. So, equipped with nothing more than ready wit, determination, and cockeyed optimism she did what many did during the 1950s - she entered every contest imaginable and she won. Whether Dr. Pepper, Kleenex tissues or a supermarket buying spree, she brought home enough to house, feed, and clothe her six sons and four daughters. Once, when her husband had secretly taken out a second mortgage on their home and they owed the bank $4,000, she won $3,440.64, a car, a European trip, and two watches. Always thinking and writing, she kept a notepad at the ready on the tip of her ironing board. Miraculously, she even managed to leave her children a modest inheritance. But, more than that, this remarkable woman left them a legacy of love and the awareness of the indomitability of the human spirit. Beautifully and touchingly read by the author (child no. 6).
Mere words can not fully convey the enjoyment I felt reading this book, or the impact its story had on me. Terry Ryan's story makes her mother a hero to all of us, serves as inspiration for making the most of what we have, and provides a better understanding of the challenges that many of our parents faced during this time. Her story is interesting, funny, charming, and best of all - true! I couldn't put this book down; it was thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and superbly written. With each chapter, I could barely wait to read on and find out what happened next... the only disappointment was getting to the end - - not that the ending itself was disappointing (quite the opposite, in fact, as the story was very satisfying) - - rather, I enjoyed Ryan's writing so much that I never wanted it to end!!!
A touching memoir which lovingly evokes the era of contesting in America. Before companies hired expensive ad agencies to create slogans, jingles, tag lines and logos, they turned to the housewives for help via these contests. I was moved by Evelyn Ryan's struggle to support her huge family in a time when few women had careers. The book demonstrated how so many women, though relegated to the role of housewives, were still able to find outlets for their talents, wits and intellects. I enjoyed the humor of Mrs. Ryan's entries and can't believe she didn't win the top prizes more often! This book reminded me of 'Rocket Boys' in that it drills home the message that, despite harrowing odds and crushing poverty, dreams can come true with a bit of ingenuity and lots of persistence.
An enjoyable read. So glad I happened upon it.
One of the best memoirs I have read yet. Definitely reccomend. It is funny, inspiring and a great read.
as a teen we dont really read novels, well except if its required at school. But this one's awsome. I loved it and it is so touching. The best part is its real life story and I could relate to it in some circumstances. I also saw the movie and i loved it too. I've watched it more than 5 times.
I loved this book! I am usually a romatic comedy reader, but the notion that anyone could raise 10 children and do so by largely entering contests inspired me. Like the other readers, I had a hard time putting this book down. It's a must read for anyone who needs an uplifting, warm your heart story.
From the moment I picked up this wonderful book, I was completely hooked! And by the time I put it down, I felt that I knew Evelyn Ryan in person. What an inspirational and amazing woman she was. Never giving into defeat, and always believing that anything was possible, this has to be one of the best books to hit the shelves in recent years. And better still, there's now a movie out based on Terry Ryan's true story about her mother. It'll make you laugh-out-loud, and it'll make you cry. But you will never forget it. A true winner in every sense of the word!
Memoirs are always special - real people, real lives - but the Prize Winner is especially poignant because it tells the story of a truly amazing woman who refuses to be beaten down by the circumstances of her marriage and the dictates of her religion. Instead of succumbing to poverty and domestic violence, Mrs. Ryan uses her talents to uplift herself and her family and to protect her children from the negative effects of their environment. Evelyn Ryan was a woman of great dignity, wit, ingenuity, and humor, a true lady. Because of her, Tuff is able to write a memoir that is always upbeat and hopeful, even in the direst of circumstances.
This is a wonderful, delightful story of a wonderful, delightful woman who always saw through to the positive side of what life threw at her. She is the kind of Mother everyone would love to have, so loving to her children and friends, so protective of her children. Smart and witty with a real flare for jingles, essays, short stories and contests. 'Tuff' wrote a beautiful testimonial to her Mother, Evelyn. You will laugh, cry, feel happiness and anger as you read about Evelyn Ryan and her family. The only disappointed I have associated with this book is that so soon after I 'discovered' and read this wonderful book, I read it has been made into a movie. I plan on seeing the movie, but I hope the movie doesn't spoil the good feelings I have in my heart after reading this book. I plan on recommending this book to my Book Club.