The life of a constant contest winner


Not long ago, my son’s doctor told me that there is no one more determined, more tenacious, than mothers with sick children.

After reading the book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How my mother raised 10 kids on 25 words or less by Terry Ryan, I am convinced that a good mother’s determination to keep the body and soul of her family together cannot be measured.

I am convinced that this is a quality that cannot be underestimated. Evelyn Ryan was struggling mightily as she raised her children with little help from her alcoholic husband in a two-bedroom house in Defiance.

Contest survival. As a means of survival, she entered every single contest that came along in the 1950s. She would stand at her ironing board and suddenly stop to jot down an idea that popped in her head while wading through laundry baskets filled to the brim with wrinkled, sprinkled clothes.

It becomes obvious, while reading this account written by her daughter, that there was a jingle angel looking out for the Ryan family. Evelyn’s timing was nothing short of miraculous.

New bike. For example, a few weeks after her son, Dick, was injured in a bicycle accident while working his paper route in late summer of 1953, she picked up an entry blank for the “X-53 Super Western Flyer” bicycle contest at the hardware store, determined to win her son a new bike so he could get his newspaper route back. The rules read that a paragraph had to be completed using 25 words or less, and parents’ help was encouraged.

As she so often did, Evelyn wrote up a little paragraph and submitted the entry in her son’s name, saying the “X-53 Super is a stand-out in any bike rack!”

New home. The family had just learned that they were being evicted from their home, they no longer had the little extra money that Dick’s paper route brought in, and the children’s father was drinking more heavily than ever before. Something had to give.

Three men in business suits pulled in to the Ryan family home in a gleaming Pontiac, asking Mrs. Ryan if her son Dick was home. Assuming that perhaps there was trouble, Mrs. Ryan asked, “What’s this about?”

The three men announced their congratulations to Dick, who stood with his arm still in a cast. “You’ve just won five thousand dollars!” Dick was speechless. Evelyn broke down in tears of enormous relief.

Saved. Out of the 65,000 entries in the company’s national bike contest, Dick’s entry was chosen to win the grand prize. Not only did he win $5,000 – comparable to well over $35,000 today – but he also won a new washer and dryer, and a brand-new Western Flyer bicycle, which was presented at halftime of a Defiance High School football game.

Dick was back in the newspaper route business, and the family was saved from homelessness in the nick of time! The $5,000 was enough for a hearty down-payment on a four-bedroom home.

Empty. The new, much-larger home seemed incredibly empty, with no money to buy appliances or furniture. Feeling lucky, though, Evelyn entered many contests after the big win, and filled the house with her winnings: an automatic coffeemaker, 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.

Often, what came her way was not the “grand” prize, and not at all what she was aiming for. Sometimes, a “cash prize” of $10 was enough to pay a pressing bill. It wasn’t always as remarkable as the Western Flyer win, but every win was always appreciated.

Grocery ‘shopping.’ Another contest landed a new chest freezer. It sat empty and cavernous, but not for long. Evelyn managed to win a 10-minute supermarket spree and was savvy enough to enlist the help of her children in planning ahead. Each went to the store ahead of the big day, mapping out the aisles, devising a plan to make the best use of cart space and the allotted time.

In the end, Evelyn Ryan managed to give her children a wonderful childhood and a remarkable hero to admire for the rest of their lives. And to think, she did it all with a sharp mind and a constantly sharpened pencil!


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.