Contest queen

Contest queen

The 1950s and ’60s were considered the “Contest Era” in America, and no one in the country was better at creating a prize-winning jingle or short poem than Evelyn Ryan. The wife of an alcoholic husband and the mother of 10 growing children, Evelyn entered contests to help stave off poverty for her family. She won a stunning number of times, averaging one prize every four times she entered; she won kitchen appliances, TVs, watches, sports equipment, cash, cars, vacations — the lengthy list goes on and on.  

She also possessed the uncanny knack for timing in her wins. As an ancient household appliance finally broke down and died, Evelyn would often receive notice that she’d just won a brand-new replacement. “I seem to have a knack for words,” she admitted. Doing much of her writing while standing at an ironing board, pressing her family’s mounds of clothes, she recorded her thoughts in an ever-present, spiral-bound notebook she kept close at hand.   

Triumph sportscar

Evelyn won a new, bright-yellow 1961 Triumph TR3 sportscar in a writing contest, which she promptly sold to help pay outstanding family bills.

Jukebox

Her quips usually included a humorous twist, similar to the writing of Ogden Nash, often poking fun at herself. Measuring just 5 feet, 6 inches tall, Evelyn had gained a few pounds later in life and wrote: 

Fitting Advice
Of all sad words,
Give these the prize:
‘My dear,
You’ll need 
Our larger size'.

Evelyn Ryan’s first major win came in 1953 when she entered Western Auto’s Bike Contest, completing the phrase “I like the all-new ‘X-53 Super’ Western Flyer bicycle because …”  Her goal was not necessarily to win the grand prize, but one of the 100 bikes to be awarded second-place finishers. Her son Dick’s bike had recently been wrecked in an accident that was not his fault, forcing him to give up his newspaper route. She wrote on her contest entry form: brand new ideas about safety, service, sleekness, combined with Western Flyer’s old reliable construction, make “X-53 Super” a standout in ANY bike rack!  

Surprising the Ryan family as well as the entire town of Defiance, Evelyn won not only a new bike for Dick but also the grand prize of $5,000 cash, which would equal about 10 times that in today’s dollars. In what was to be her typical dramatic style, her win came just as their landlord was about to evict them from the small, two-bedroom house the family was renting. She and her husband used the cash as a down payment on a house of their own. 

More wins, both large and small, came during the ensuing years — and at an accelerated rate. One of the major contests was sponsored by Beech-Nut gum and promoted as “The Tune Without a Title.” The contest was designed to come up with a name for a giant sub sandwich by fitting the name of the sub to the beat of a particular song. Evelyn’s winning entry was Frisk-the-Frigidaire, Clean-the-Cupboards-Bare Sandwich.

For that, she won three items as grand prize: a new, bright-yellow 1961 Triumph TR3 sportscar; a full-size Seeburg jukebox; and an all-expenses-paid weekend trip for two to New York City to appear on Merv Griffin’s Saturday Prom TV show. When the prizes arrived, Evelyn quickly sold both the sportscar and jukebox to pay outstanding family bills, but she and son Bruce did take the trip to New York, staying in a fancy hotel suite.

The ultimate win of her contesting career came several years later, when the Dr. Pepper soft drink company asked contestants to complete the following limerick:

With Dr. Pepper, 
the flavor that’s in.
It’s distinctive and bright
It’s lively and light …

Evelyn’s winning last line was: 

There’s no time like NOW to begin!

It bested a whopping 250,000 other entries nationwide, earning her the four-part grand prize of a two-week trip for two to Switzerland, a new Ford Mustang, his-and-hers gold Longines wristwatches, and best of all, nearly $3,500 in cash. The cash paid off a second mortgage on the family home that was due the very next day.    

Evelyn’s daughter, Terry Ryan, wrote a 2001 national bestseller about her mom’s amazing run, titled The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. The book was subsequently made into a film of the same name, released in 2005, starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson.  

Evelyn Ryan died in 1998 at the age of 85, a week after penning one of her last poems — which, fittingly, contains exactly 25 words:

Every time I pass the church
I stop and make a visit
So when I’m carried in feet first
God won’t say, ‘Who is it?’