By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Terry Ryan, 60, whose best-selling memoir "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" described how her mother raised 10 children by writing winning advertising jingles, died of cancer May 16 at her home in San Francisco.
Ms. Ryan, a technical writer and poet who also penned the punch lines to a long-running cartoon in the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote her book in grief after her mother's death in 1998. Evelyn Ryan, an Ohio housewife with an irrepressibly cheerful outlook and a husband who drank most of his paycheck, entered the contests in the 1950s to keep her family housed and fed.
"Every single major contest she won came in just the nick of time," Ms. Ryan said.
More than once, her mother's wordsmithing skills saved the family from homelessness. They were about to be evicted from a rental house when a winning Western Auto contest entry gave her enough money for a down payment on the house she would live in for the next 45 years.
A jingle in praise of frozen spinach won a 10-minute shopping spree at a local grocery. She won everything from toasters to dance shoes, cars to washing machines to trips to Switzerland. She sold the merchandise, because in addition to housing and food expenses, there were bills for emergency room visits, for clothing, for eyeglasses.
For every four entries Evelyn Ryan submitted, she won a prize, which was not a bad percentage, because she usually submitted multiple entries in each contest. She wrote in pencil, in longhand, in a notebook kept at the end of her always-occupied ironing board.
"She didn't have time to write a book. She didn't have time to write short stories, really. She had time to write 25-words-or-less entries," Ms. Ryan said.
Her last big win came in 1965, after her husband had taken a second mortgage on the house without telling her. Weeks before they would have lost the home due to a $4,000 debt, she won top prize in a Dr Pepper contest, collecting $3,440.64, a Ford Mustang, a trip to Switzerland and two watches. The contest era ended just as her 10 children grew up and left home.
After Evelyn Ryan's death, her daughter discovered drawers and trunks stuffed full of notebooks, 67 completed entry forms and dozens of award letters. Terry Ryan unpacked and sorted the material for the next four months.
The book was published in 2001 and became a sensation, getting four full minutes on the "Today" show. It made People magazine's book of the week list. Newspapers did long interviews, women's magazines ran gushing reviews and a movie starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson was made in 2005.
It was all very heady stuff for a shy, quiet technical writer who had previously published only poetry and book reviews. She was described as physically folding in on herself during interviews, until she took media training and "found her inner ham," her partner said.
Terry Ryan was born July 14, 1946, in Defiance, a middle child who was dubbed "Tuff" for her ability to make her way in the crowded household.
She graduated from Bowling Green University and moved to Chicago, where she was an editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association. Before long, she wandered west to San Francisco, which she made her home.
In 1983, she met Pat Holt, then editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's Book Review, when Ms. Ryan and Sylvia Mollick pitched her the idea of running a one-panel cartoon, "T.O. Sylvester," in the publication.
"I called it the only original literary cartoon commissioned for a Sunday book section in the country," said Holt, her partner for 24 years. The humor was sly and sweet: "That's my problem," one cow said to another as they sat together reading the newspaper. "I'm lactose intolerant."
"She had this sense of humor you could tell she inherited from her mother that was so resilient and positive," Holt said. "She would say, 'Always start from where you are' and 'Don't dwell on fears of the past.' "
Survivors include five brothers and four sisters.