The following appeared in #236 (5/15/01) of Holt Uncensored, a twice-weekly email column and website about books and the book industry written by Pat Holt, former Book Review Editor and Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.
The Prize Winner on TV: CBS Sunday Morning News, Part IIIWell, when it comes to filming stories with a heart, you have to hand it to a show like CBS Sunday Morning. Gad, what an emotional powerhouse they packed into the short feature presented on Mother's Day about my partner Terry's book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less."
Having watched this TV crew nearly dismantle the town of Defiance, Ohio, as they filmed well over two dozen interviews in two separate trips that amounted to what I gauged to be more than 10 full HOURS of videotape, I couldn't fathom how they could boil it all down to 9 MINUTES (see #235) and get anything serious or significant across about Terry's mother, Evelyn Ryan.
But in telling this story through Terry's eyes as she went back to Defiance to speak and sign books to audiences all over town, producer Mary Lou Teel and her crew seemed to understand they had crossed into a sacred space.
As much as possible, they avoided the Small Town USA cliches in order to probe deeper into this story of one remarkable mom, who systematically wins contests to keep her alcoholic husband at bay and her financially strapped family of 12 afloat.
This TV crew wanted us to see not only Terry Ryan, child #6, go back to the old house that Evelyn won (twice), but also many of her siblings, LeaAnne, Bub, Bruce, Betsy and Dave (#1, #3, #5, #9, #10), make that journey as well.
They wanted these adult children to stand on the street remembering how they all played ball for years before two brothers (Dick and Bub) went on to pitch for the Detroit Tigers farm team; to gaze at the window where their alcoholic dad used to throw half of Evelyn's winnings away; to talk under the roar of passing trains two doors away that none of them, after they moved into the house, heard following the first terrifying night; and to remark as if it just occurred to them that they had never considered their family (certainly one of the poorest in Defiance) impoverished in any way.
But the part that really zinged it home, I felt, was the way this crew figured out how crucial it was to emphasize the written language on a TV entertainment/news show, which ordinarily depends on slick, fast-moving images that keep us mesmerized rather than inform us in any real way.
They took up precious minutes in that 9-minute segment to place Evelyn's old entry blanks and scribbled notebook pages on the screen, allowing us to see past the fun and amusing visuals (Terry reenacting her mother's 10-minute Supermarket Spree, for example) to the literary heart of this story:
This was the characterization of Evelyn as a gifted writer, as funny as Erma Bombeck and as witty as Dorothy Parker, who had married too soon and won a full scholarship too late to achieve her lifelong dream of attending Defiance College.
While it was true that Evelyn turned her gift for writing to practical advantage by writing jingles and rhymes that saved her family from eviction time after time, the more enduring message she passed on to her children, the show seemed to say, was that grappling with language to express your deepest desires will always give you a winner's advantage.
So it would have been enough for the show to note that the faculty at Defiance College voted to awarded Evelyn a posthumous Doctorate of Humane Letters.
But it was perhaps beyond the pale for the CBS crew to fly back to Defiance and attend the commencement ceremony, let us watch Terry accepting the PhD. with an eloquent speech ("My mother believed the greatest education occurs on the inside, between the heart and the mind") and film the faces of Evelyn's adult children watching their mother finally have her day of academic recognition at last.
When in the final sequence we see Terry and her brother Bruce arrive at their mother's grave, where they place billowing helium balloons emblazoned with the joyous words, YEAR 2001 GRADUATE, what could have been a maudlin scene exploited by TV became a heart-rendering tribute to one very spirited, brave woman of the '50s, who has something to teach us all a half-century later.
Critics like me would say it's the literary component that deepened the narrative of the segment, but I think it was the miracle of everything that television can be when it pushes past the easy and obvious images and takes on the complexity of real life. There are many Evelyn Ryans in our midst - like other "ordinary" housewives, she found hidden resources that shouldn't remain invisible. Here's to the possibility that television goes after the more profound story in all of them.