Terry Ryan was a technical writer, book editor, reviewer, poet, and coauthor
of the long-running Chronicle cartoon "T.O. Sylvester." However, the work for
which she is best known is her 2001 memoir, The Prize Winner of Defiance,
Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, about her mother,
Evelyn Ryan, a 1950s housewife with 10 children and a husband with a habit of
drinking his paycheck, who wrote product jingles for contests to keep her family
Terry Ryan, the sixth of 10 children, was born on July 14, 1946, in Defiance, Ohio. Growing up in the middle, with five brothers, she earned the nickname "Tuff." Always athletic, she was the first girl pitcher in the town's summer baseball league and led the Defiance team to intramural victory.
She earned her bachelor's degree in the late '60s from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and moved to Chicago where she worked as an editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association. There she met Irene Ogus; anxious to see the United States, they contracted to take "drive-away" cars across country.
"We got in a car one night in Chicago when it was about 40 below," recalled Ogus, now a San Francisco mortgage broker. "We had all our possessions in this big old Buick and drove for 30 hours to deliver it to Fort Lauderdale." From there, they went west, settling in San Francisco where they joined the Daughters of Bilitis, a social group founded in 1955 that was the first lesbian rights organization.
Ryan met Pat Holt in 1983, who was then editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. Holt had been requested to "brighten" up the book review section - the result was Terry and Sylvia Mollick's cartoon, which ran for 16 years.
Holt and Ryan were married by Mayor Gavin Newsom on Valentine's Day weekend in 2004. She recorded an account of the day in "We Do!" published by Chronicle Books.
The Ryan kids "were always encouraged to be ourselves," Terry's sister Betsy recalls. "I was not expected to be like Tuff. Barb was not expected to be like me. Mom waited for some indication from us of who we were, and she helped us go there. Today we differ on every last thing because we were never expected to fit into a mold."
When her mother died in 1998, Ryan knew she had to write her story. She hauled home a chest full of 50-year-old contest entries, workbooks and letters, and her mother's parrot, Clancy, who still speaks in her mother's voice. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio was an instant success and was soon optioned for a movie. It was while Ryan was visiting the film set in a small town near Toronto that she first showed symptoms of what was to be diagnosed as Stage IV cancer, with lesions in her lungs and brain. She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
When she appeared at a screening of The Prize Winner of Defiance in San Francisco in 2005, cancer was clearly sapping her energy, but not her outlook. She told a reporter, "You have to always, always look at the positive side and don't get lost in the negative."
She died in May 2007 at her home in San Francisco. She was 60. She is survived by her nine siblings, their children and Pat Holt, her partner of nearly a quarter-century.
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