Susan Schindehette
October 10, 2005 12:00 PM

As late-morning light filters into her San Francisco sun room, Terry Ryan runs a hand over her formerly bald head, touching the hair just beginning to grow in wispy patches after nine rounds of chemotherapy. “It’s like peach fuzz gone wild,” she says, a smile spreading across her thin face. “I shaved it off anticipating it would fall out, but I liked the cut. I should have done it years earlier.”

That kind of cheeriness would be noteworthy in anyone, let alone someone diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that has metastasized to the brain. But then, 59-year-old Terry Ryan’s spirit is no superficial thing: It’s in the genes. Ryan’s inspiring 2001 memoir, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, tells the real-life story of her mother, Evelyn Ryan, who supported her family of 10 kids and an alcoholic husband by winning ’50s-era jingle-writing contests. Now being released as a feature film starring Julianne Moore, Ryan’s memoir is Terry’s way of “bringing her mother back, immortalizing her in a way,” says Moore, who plays Evelyn in the film. “It’s the most beautiful thing a child could do for a parent.”

As Terry sees it, it’s the least she can do. The sixth of Evelyn and Kelly Ryan’s kids, she began her childhood in 1946 in a tumbledown frame house in Defiance, 50 miles southwest of Toledo. Her father, who worked in a machine shop, drank up a third of his paycheck with a daily fifth of whiskey and six-pack of beer. “He wouldn’t have hurt a fly when he wasn’t drinking,” says Terry’s brother David, 51. “It was just when he got into his alcohol, the littlest thing could set him off.”

Struggling to find a way to help support her brood, Evelyn joined the ranks of “contesters”—enterprising housewives who made spending money by entering promotional jingle contests for products from Dial soap to Tetley tea. At first, Evelyn won small prizes—a dollar here, a toaster there. But in 1953, just as the family was facing eviction, Evelyn won a Western Auto competition grand prize—a washer and dryer, a bicycle and $5,000 that she used as a down payment on a new house. Over the years Evelyn won more than 200 such contests, racking up cars, refrigerators and trips to Switzerland. Often as not, she traded the prizes for cash to pay for the mortgage, doctors’ bills and school clothes.

In time, companies abandoned these promotions, and Ryan took a job as a sales clerk in the local JCPenney, where she worked until she retired in 1983. She died in 1998 at age 85. By then, Terry, a technical writer and sometime cartoonist, was living in San Francisco. But when she and her siblings returned to Defiance to sort through her mother’s belongings, they found a cedar chest containing 24 notebooks filled with jingles, along with entry forms and hundreds of letters of congratulations (“Dear Mrs. Evelyn Ryan. Here’s your television…”). As a way of dealing with the pain of her loss, Terry spent six months organizing the material, and with the help of her partner of the past 22 years, Pat Holt, now 61, a manuscript editor, shaped it into a book. “At first, people said, If this were fiction, no one would believe it,'” says Terry.

But the book found its audience, and Dream Works gave Terry a movie deal. Then, last November, just after she filmed a cameo for the movie, she discovered what had been causing her recent double vision and loss of balance. She went to a doctor and “they found six lesions in my brain and a tumor in each lung,” she says. Today, though her cancer is not curable, with treatment, she says, “I get a little tired, but I feel great. Isn’t that a miracle?” Despite her illness, Terry is obviously infused with her mother’s unyielding spirit. And now, thanks to her efforts, “everyone will know my mother and be influenced by her life. This is her biggest win of all time. She’d be in heaven,” says Terry. “Oh, wait,” she adds with a smile. “She already is.”

Susan Schindehette. Alexis Chiu in San Francisco and Ashley Williams in New York City

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