Prather’s Pick: ‘Prize Winner' is a feel-good book

Terry Carwile, of Craig, recommended this week’s book. It’s the true story of an incredibly strong, talented and spunky woman who found a unique way to provide for her 10 children.

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Diane Prather

“The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less” was written by Terry Ryan. The book first was published in hardcover, but the book that Terry loaned me is a Pocket Star Book, published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. The book has a 2001 copyright date.

The memoir begins in Defiance, Ohio, in October 1953. There were nine children in the Ryan family then, ranging in age from 1 to 16 years old. Their mother, Evelyn Ryan, was expecting their 10th child. (The author of the book was Terry, one of the children. Terry was 7 years old in 1953.)

The Ryan family was one of the poorest in Defiance. Father Ryan worked at Serrick’s Screw Machine Shop, where he helped make nuts, bolts, screws, screwdrivers, pliers, hammers and the like. His take-home pay was about $90 per week, which barely was enough to pay for rent and food. To make matters worse, Dad spent $30 each week on whiskey and beer.

So a generous aunt bought most of the family’s food. Their clothing consisted of hand-me-downs, and the Lions Club bought eyeglasses for the kids when they needed them.

Evelyn had been writing all of her life. She probably could have gotten a job in advertising, but with all the children to care for, she couldn’t afford to work away from home. So she turned to “contesting,” something lots of other housewives did back then.

The “25 words or less” contests came about during the post-World War II economic boom. Companies with products to sell thought that people would buy the products for the “proof of purchase” labels that were required to accompany the entry blanks. If they liked the products, the consumers would buy more.

Evelyn had shoe boxes filled with entry blanks and proof of purchase labels. It wasn’t unusual to find cans soaking in the sink so that the labels could be removed.

She kept notebooks with contest information and a variety of limericks, statements and poems in various stages of completion. (Evelyn also sent poems to periodicals.) She worked on the entries as she did chores such as ironing. Her notebook was open on one side of the ironing board so she could jot down ideas as she thought them up. At night after supper and after all the dishes had been washed and put away, Evelyn sat down on the couch and worked some more.

She entered each contest numerous times, under variations of her name: Mrs. Evelyn Ryan, Mrs. Evalyn Ryan, Mrs. Evalynn Ryan and so forth. Sometimes, she entered a contest under her children’s names, too. The entries were mailed out by the deadlines, and Evelyn waited for Pokey, the mailman (named because he “poked” along), to bring the results.

Up to the day the memoir begins, Evelyn had been winning small prizes, many of which she put into the closet to be used as gifts. But the family was in for a surprise.

Terry remembered that the school-age kids were home for lunch, and while they ate, they played out by the front steps. So they got a firsthand look at the jet-black Pontiac Chieftain that pulled up in front of the house. Three men wearing dark, pinstriped suits got out of the car and headed for the Ryan door.

Dick, 14 years old, had no idea that his mom had entered him in a contest sponsored by Western Auto Supply Company — to win a Western Flyer bicycle. But there was much more, including a washer and dryer and $5,000 (imagine how much money that would be today).

The winnings came just in time, too, because the family was going to have to move out of the two-bedroom (imagine two bedrooms with nine children) house because the landlord needed the house back for his daughter. So the prize money was used to put a down payment on a 60-year-old, two story, four-bedroom home.

The book has a lot of other stories about Evelyn’s winnings, including the entries she sent in. This is a great, feel-good-all-over book.

Thanks for sharing the book with me, Terry. Try ordering the book via the Internet or through Downtown Books.

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