Mary Collins Ryan

Mary Collins Ryan

This past year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the AAUW and in conjunction with the Bradford Landmark Society, the Bradford Era featured a series of articles spotlighting extraordinary women. Two were entertainers; two were doctors; one saved a train load of people from a burning forest fire; another escaped enemy capture during World War II: one became a symbol for civil rights, and another fought for women suffrage. And so on.

For the final installment in this popular series, I chose to feature my mother, Mary Collins Ryan. Now, everyone believes their own mother to be exceptional but it is only by looking back over her life that I realized what a truly extraordinary life she led.

My mother, Mary Rita Collins, was born on December 12, 1922 in Bradford hospital to Margaret and Harry Collins. As a nurse held the newborn baby in her arms she cooed “Aye, that’s the face of a little mick” and the nickname stuck. She became known as “Mickey” to friends and family for the rest of her life although in St. Bernard school the nuns did not tolerate colloquial nicknames and throughout her school years her real name was used. She graduated in 1940, and won a scholarship to Villa Maria College but turned it down; choosing to remain in Bradford and help support her mother. Her first job was as a secretary for Healy Petroleum, located in present day City Hall. Later, she worked as a secretary for Hanley Brick, as a receptionist for Drs. Roche, Luckett, Huff, and Herbert; as secretary for the Explorer program for gifted children in the Bradford school district, worked as a secretary for Ray Johnson at the Bradford Regional Airport Authority, and still later worked as secretary at the school district’s bus garage.

She met my father, Bill Ryan, at a party during World War II when he was home on leave; they married in November, 1948. He built a house in Bingham, a small community between Mt. Alton and Cyclone and soon five children came along. He worked in the oil fields as a pumper, and she became a stay at home mother. Looking to keep her mind sharp, she began to enter contests.

In the 1950s and 1960s, writing jingles and slogans, naming things, or inventing catchy rhymes to win prizes was popular as companies hosted “skill” contests to promote their products. My mother entered them all, usually in ‘25 words or less.’ As it turned out, she had a knack for it.

Prizes ranged from modest cash amounts or inexpensive items to fabulous awards such as cars, vacations, and houses. Many were judged by D. L. Blair from Nebraska or Donnelley from Chicago, professional firms that specialized in selecting the winner from thousands of entries. Some were judged by college professors hired for their expertise but others, such as local stores, radio stations, or businesses, relied on their own employees to sift through the entries and make the final determination.

The style of contest writing influenced the odds of winning. D.L. Blair preferred humorous or witty wording with a twist; Donnelley liked honest entries, right from the housewife’s heart. Mom soon learned to tailor her entries to fit these idiosyncrasies of the judging agencies. And it paid off. Winning contests would become a very lucrative hobby.

During the peak of her contesting years, she won over 1000 prizes. Official registered letters arrived on a regular basis. A mysterious box would be delivered by the mailman with a prize inside. A telephone call from the judging agency would have my mother jumping for joy.

She became so successful at winning that my father insisted that she join several contestant clubs and subscribe to contest publications. The “Contest Worksheet” arrived in our mailbox every month and my mother would pour over each new contest featured inside, checking for word length requirements, entry rules, eligibility, required box tops or labels, proof of purchase, and entry deadlines. And of course, the prizes.

The mailman delivered letters from a “Round Robin” of fellow contestants, who would send extra contest entry blanks through the mail to other “robins” in exchange for news of even more contests, tips on winning, and success stories.

We Ryan kids were recruited into service as contest entry form scavengers as soon as we could read. While Mom shopped for food at the A & P or Loblaws grocery stores, we were delegated to troll up and down every grocery aisle, looking for contest entry blanks which were often placed next to the company’s products on the shelves. We were expected to take as many as possible to supply the ‘Round Robins” incessant hunger for new contests. It was always a great sense of pride when we managed to find a new contest that Mom didn’t know about.

In the 1950s, kitchen appliances, radios and record players, washing machines and dryers were popular prizes for baby boomer parents; by the 1960s, prizes evolved into televisions, space toys, transistor radios, and camping gear. Mom won them all. She also won golf balls, a Radio Flyer wagon, a globe of the world, clocks, jewelry, vacuum cleaners, can openers, bikes, cameras, watches, fishing poles, a tent, tools, toys, guns, a year’s supply of baby food, laundry detergent and soft drinks. She even won a furnace for our house from a local heating company. Some of the odder prizes were nylon stockings, a ukulele, a Bat Masterson hat, a pair of shoelaces, an Avon hand puppet, four inflatable toy penguins, and two Playtex bras.

In 1952 she won my brother Tom, then just 2 years old, a $2,000 college scholarship, which was put in escrow until he reached age 18. In 1959 she won a Lionel Train – twice! – from Colgate for the jingle “Lionel Trains are tops for play, and Colgate’s bringing them your way. So groom with Colgate every day, no “pull” man when I shave, you’ll say” and from General Mills for naming the Cocoa Puff kids: Waifer, Biscute, and Cheereal.

In 1956 she won a combination Bendix Gas Duomatic Washer and Dryer and home laundry worth $1000 from a company promoting their new laundry detergent called AD. Her winning entry? “Whether clothes be soiled in office or foundry, Wash them with AD in a New Freedom Gas Laundry. Wonderfully efficient servants are these, this “team” guarantees AD-conditioned clothes please.”

She won us a pony from the Edsel Wagon Train Company in April 1958 by naming it “Whightning.” The company shipped the pony to the Valley Hunt Club at Lewis Run and later delivered it to our house in Bingham. That Saturday morning we kids were watching Captain Kangaroo when the horse trailer pulled up out front and two men unloaded a pretty chestnut pony with white mane and tail and a brand new saddle and bridle. “Whightning” – who we renamed “Champ” — had arrived.

One of her proudest achievements was in 1957 when she won $100 for writing a Burma Shave jingle. Burma Shave was a brand of shaving cream, famous for its advertising gimmick of posting consecutive small signs with humorous wording along the edge of highways, spaced out for sequential reading by passing cars. The last sign always has the words “Burma-Shave.”

Her jingle? “At a quiz, Pa ain’t no whiz. But he knows how to keep Ma his — Burma Shave.” It was located along a rural road near Erie.

In August 1964, my mother received a special delivery letter notifying her that she had won one of the top prizes in the Masonite “Key to Better Living” Contest. Three families were in competition to be the winner of the grand prize, a brand new house valued at $25,000. First, though, each would be personally interviewed by representatives of the judging agency, to certify that he or she was indeed the person who had entered the contest and have an official affidavit signed attesting to this fact.

Two very proper looking representatives from the D.L. Blair agency came to our house for the interview. Mom and Dad nervously met them at the door.

She gave us kids the secret signal, an eye piercing look, directing us to politely say hello, then get up and head upstairs. In the front bedroom, we strained to hear the conversation and tiptoed over to the small floor heating grate that was positioned right over the living room. Shushing each other repeatedly, we listened to the official contest strangers and our parents talking below as the fate of the winning entry was determined.

Well, she didn’t win the house. She didn’t even win the second prize, a new car. But she did win the third prize, an RCA home entertainment center: a six foot wide, solid cherry cabinet with a record player on one side, an AM/FM radio on the other and in the center, more importantly, a color television. We now owned the only color television in Bingham; in fact, the only color television that any of us had ever seen. The fact that only two television shows, Gunsmoke and Hazel, were actually in color was unimportant. Prize winning was great!

My mother didn’t stop there, though. She doubled her efforts to win even more prizes and she would continue to win contests for the next 50 years, even winning a trip to Hawaii in 1990.

As the heyday of true contests ended, and the era of sweepstakes began (which Mom looked down on with utter disdain, since no skill was involved, just submission of your name and a lucky draw), she turned to freelance writing and had several articles published in regional newspapers and magazines. As we children headed off to college and later jobs and marriage, she wrote letters to all of us for years, saving copies of every letter she wrote and all the letters that the five of us wrote back to her. Upon her death, we discovered 47 years’ worth of letters, each year carefully stored inside separate brown manila envelopes. There are almost 10,000 letters and are literally a chronicle of our lives.

Mom lived to be 94 years old, dying in 2016, and for the last fifteen years of her life volunteered at the Bradford Landmark Society as a typist, transcribing newspaper articles and typing anything we needed. She even translated old St. Bernard Church birth records, written in Latin. The nuns had taught her Latin seventy years earlier. And she continued to enter every contest – even sweepstakes – that she could find, always believing that her entry would win the prize.

She told me once that the reason she had time to think up all those winning entries was because she had five children. “There’s not much else to do when folding diapers” she laughed. “You might as well be thinking up ways to win.”

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