Lunch with Mimi

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Every month since January 1996, Penn State alumna Mimi Barash Coppersmith has conducted a question-and-answer session in “Town & Gown,” the community magazine she founded in 1966 that focuses on Happy Valley.

The popular segment, “Lunch with Mimi,” debuted as part of the magazine’s 30th anniversary. So, for the past 259 months the magazine’s founder, a 1953 Penn State graduate with a degree in journalism, has asked questions of campus and community leaders. 

This month, on the occasion of Barash Coppersmith publishing her memoir, “Eat First, Cry Later,” the table has turned and Dean Marie Hardin of the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications is asking the questions. All proceeds from the book will benefit Penn State communications students who study abroad.

Along with founding “Town & Gown,” Barash Coppersmith was co-founder of State College-based Morgan Signs Inc. She served seven three-year terms as an alumni-elected member of the Penn State Board of Trustees and was the first woman elected board chair, serving two one-year terms. She has been honored as the Renaissance Person of the Year by the University and was named a Distinguished Alumna, the highest honor bestowed by her alma mater.

Barash Coppersmith, 85, has complemented her history of philanthropy to Penn State and community organizations with abundant hands-on service. Among many roles, she has served as president of the board of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts and as chair of capital campaigns for the Women’s Resource Center, Alpha Ambulance and the Hemlock Girl Scout Council.

Her book shares life lessons gleaned through personal tragedy and triumph as she built a career, lost her first husband to cancer, outlived another and divorced the third. Her forthright approach and strongmindedness shines through on the pages of the book as she discusses many topics, including raising her family, friendship, and the value of community.

Marie Hardin speaks to Mimi Barash Coppersmith

Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications Dean Marie Hardin, left, chats with Mimi Barash Coppersmith about her new memoir over lunch at the Nittany Lion Inn.

Image: Trey Miller

Mimi Barash Coppersmith/Marie Hardin Q&A

MH: Congratulations on doing this book! 

MC: It takes much longer than a child.

MH: What was the most valuable part of the process for you?

MC: Having an opportunity to do something constructive with my older daughter. She and I have spent a lifetime of struggle to manage a solid, positive relationship. We had a very bumpy ride at the end, but throughout the experience from November of 2016 to May of 2018, I had won a daughter and she had won a mother back. It was quite an experience. 

MH: One of the things I love about this book is we learned about your professional life, but we also learned about your personal journey and your journey with your daughters. What I’m hearing you say is that this book really allowed you to do some things in your own life with your daughter.

MC: With great pleasure. It was hard work, very hard work. She’s critical, and critical is a positive word. She can be very critical, as I can be. It was an interesting experiment. It proves that we can get along, though. 

MH: What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about writing a memoir? 

MC: Be better prepared than I was, personally. It takes a lot of time to do a good piece of work, whether it’s short or long. It requires your memory. It requires your objectivity. There’s a tendency to want to tell just the nice parts of the journey, but really, the interesting part and the challenging part is to try to understand the difficult parts. I believe that Carol helped me look, square in the eye, after I had written these anecdotes and pull out of me more details. The reality of suffering from a loss, from a disappointment: it’s not easy and as I talk, I get little chills up and down my arms realizing that you can overcome it, but it’s hard getting out of the hole and sharing it with the rest of the world. And she wanted to share far more than I wanted to. There are still people who read the book and say, ‘I couldn’t be as open as you were.’ I assure them it wasn’t easy for me in many spots, but I believe that’s what makes the book authentic and I credit my daughter for it. I would have never gotten the courage myself to look square in the eye at some things that aren’t very pretty.

MH: I so admire how much you shared with us in this book. What other responses have you gotten from folks who have read the book?

MC: I get some emails that just send me into heaven. I had that terrible flu this past winter that had me out of commission for two months. I had never been that sick. It kind of puts in the past the dark, having a mastectomy, because you’re asleep through all that and when you get up, you’re pretty normal except you’re less one boob.When I got this illness, it challenged me in terms of getting better. The hardest part of getting better from the recent flu was that it brought back my anxiety and depression. This is not in the book, but this is an offshoot of the time involved and I’m much better now, but I couldn’t have done this interview two months ago, perhaps. I mean I’m tough, but you can only tell your body so much.

MH: You write about your struggle with depression . . . Have you heard from folks that have said that made a difference for them?

MC: Other people bring the subject up now with me. In speeches that I give, or during the ‘Lunch with Mimi Live’ program with Kish Bank over a 10-year period, I frequently talk about it because it is a serious subject facing women. Women are less prone to share deep, personal things than others. I try to share with women how therapy helped me get out of the hole I was in when I caught my third husband cheating on me — not that I had two others that cheated. I had two other good ones. 

MH: You write about your challenges, but you also write about some really great triumphs. It seems to me that you write this book, in a way, for and to women. That’s the sense I got. What are you hoping women take from this?

MC: Well, I try to define 48 lessons learned. I found along the way that advice and lessons from other people, in many instances men, helped save me, helped me gather the strength personally to believe I could get better. I just think that’s a gift that you have to keep trying to give to others because when it all is said and done, I’m a very lucky person.

MH: And a very accomplished and influential person in this community.

MC: Well, part of that, I was never afraid to express my opinion and help facilitate what I believed in. But, by and large, I lived in a community that cared. Nobody ever pushed me over the edge and they could have. The bank could have stripped me of my greatest monetary asset, and they didn’t. They didn’t. Together, we facilitated a plan where I could work out — I never knew what a workout was, I thought you always had to pay it back — and design one that both sides of the table could live with. Tough as I am, I am a great negotiator and I learned that from the business world. Bulls make money, bears make money, but pigs get slaughtered. I came out because I was able to be a part of negotiations that eased the pain for both sides of the equation. There is, generally speaking, a path like that. 

MH: To what do you credit the wisdom that you share in this book?

MC: My first two husbands, each in their own way, were very different from me and each had lessons I learned. That’s why I say most of my lifelong lessons in the struggles were principally from men that became part of my life, either in business or personally. Also, my mother with whom I battled like my older daughter battles with me. As I reflected, as I wrote this book, I am more like my mother than I would have ever believed. She always insisted that you could do better. If you brought home a report card that had four As and one B, she didn’t say, ‘Wow, those four As are great.’ She’d say, ‘What’s with the B?’ She really charged me with an important role in a family of four children who were alive most of my growing up years. Also, I think emotionally and strategically, the one event in my life that I experienced when I was 11 years old was the loss of my only brother in a war in an airplane. I can’t bear hawk politicians or nations. I also learned from that experience that so many people are sad and I tried to figure out what I could do to get some warmth back into our home. My parents were very religious Jewish people, conservatives, not heavy-duty conservatives. I grew up in a kosher home. We had values that I learned at an early age about giving and sharing what you earn with others because they’re struggling more than you are. I learned while I wrote this book that being Jewish is something I’m very proud of and something I should speak about more often because it’s been a great influence on my life. There are certain values that make my religion of birth worth the drive through life.

MH: One of the things I learned about was the role that you and Sy had in really helping build a strong Jewish community here in State College. 

MC: We weren’t the only ones. We were one of 13 families and at the time, we were the youngest, at least I was the youngest, of the people involved. The old me, then, was very upset when Sy made that decision without my input, but we got over it. 

MH: I think about that, I think about your role with things like Arts Fest and the Renaissance Dinner and your role on the Board of Trustees over the years, your role in really building the State College community.

MC: But they were all opportunities that this community gave me and I wasn’t shut away from the community, the town and the gown. I wasn’t shutout from anything. Now, I’ve gotten to the stage of my life where people say, ‘Well, did you talk to Mimi?’ You know it’s kind of joyful to be perceived as a problem-solver or a facilitator. That is a great gift I give and I receive. 

MH: There is so much that you’ve done. What do you want your legacy, ultimately, to be?

MC: She was tough, but fair. I believe that’s the legacy I will leave behind. There are certain projects you don’t have to make money on. There are projects that are worthwhile for your own satisfaction and for the community. The model for Town & Gown is not a good business model. To start a publication that’s free, and part of our idea was to have more circulation than anybody else, and it demonstrated our overall quality and capability as an organization. I had the good fortune of having more than a single business. 

MH: But you built that.

MC: We built that, yes. Yes, and it does have a bottom line. Not a big one and in the kind of market we’re dealing with today in terms of the challenges for print media, it’s a good model because newspapers around the country are half the circulation that they were 15 years ago and keep going down. Ours doesn’t keep going down, but we keep paying for it. The model is right, but it’s not a model that will make you rich and famous. But, because it is a magazine that the community and visitors have warmed up to, it has survived in a more positive way than many other print media in the market. But it’s a challenge. All print media will be challenged as the social media become stronger and can generate data. It’s a fact. I don’t think print media will go totally away, but probably their circulation will continue to decline. 

MH: I imagine print media as having a niche role in communities, I would guess. 

MC: Newspapers in particular. We don’t try to be reporters in Town & Gown. We try to preserve history. Newspapers, you’ve got to be a little tearful for them because they want to keep informing their readers, but there’s only so much you can give away. Because of technology, we may not have very nice retail places in any community in America. I don’t know how many people have faced that reality, but that would be enough to make you cry. It’s almost like the depression in a different way.

MH: You’re talking about change, and one thing I loved about this book was learning about Sy and Lou and the roles that they played in your life. They were both a part of this community and helped grow this community. What do you think would surprise each one of them today about Penn State and State College? 

MC: They wouldn’t believe the physical things that have happened. I don’t know about you, but those new student apartments in Toftrees look like an Army barracks. All those trees went. If you’ve lived here and care and drive around and look, they took all of those trees down and turned them into sawdust, mounds of sawdust that were hauled away, and I just wanted to open my car window and scream and just yell at them, ‘Stop!’ What went up is just the ugliest possible thing. Now, you’re not supposed to talk that way, but that’s the truth. Maybe what I’ve learned from them and with the passing of time, the truth may hurt but you’ve got to deal with the truth to ever solve a problem.

MH: It’s interesting that you say that. You say that very thing in different ways in some of those 48 lessons, this idea of acknowledging and facing the truth head on and then reaching into your toolbox to deal with it.

MC: I have portions of days that I reserve, this morning was one of them, to follow up on the things I’ve avoided following up for probably two months because I wasn’t sure of how I wanted to handle them. I cleaned them all up this morning. For some reason, I woke up and I went, ‘Ah, I have to take all of those telephone messages that I’ve taken on a tablet over the last so many weeks. I’ve got to go through them and take care of them because they aren’t easy to deal with, but today I can handle it.’ We all tend to put off the things we don’t enjoy doing and mine pile up sometimes. I hate the internet. It wants to interrupt you every moment of my life and I can’t stand it. So, I get these chunks of time where I’ll say, ‘Well, this afternoon I’m going to conquer it.’ But you let so much pile up that you can’t believe there’s so much yet to do. 

MH: Something else you talk about in this book that I just so enjoyed reading about were the long, deep friendships that you’ve developed over many years and how much those mean to you — and how much you’ve been able to accomplish with the friends that you have in this community over many years.

MC: Life is all about relationships I’ve learned, and I have been blessed with tons of relationships — but just a few really good friends. I think you can’t have an army of people you can call in the spur of the moment for anything, but you can have one in particular and, you know, three or four backups. I’m not a loner. I’m not crazy about being alone. That may be why my third marriage didn’t work and led my husband to cheat. I just love to be with people, and especially people who you can love and enjoy. There’s nothing like having one great friend because we all need somebody to talk to and we all need somebody to be there when you need it. Yesterday was a perfect example. I was in a meeting with my accountant going over something in particular. I was interrupted by my best friend’s caregiver who said, ‘Could you get Barbara a quart of vegetable bean soup at Harrison’s before you come home?’ I got it for her even though I had other things on my schedule. I figured out how I’d get it there and get it there on time. It becomes a high priority because it’s a need of my very best friend that is very sick and she doesn’t need this not to come to fruition. That’s the reason she calls me and that’s the reason I respond. It’s a silly little thing, but it’s demonstrative of what a good friend will do.

MH: You’ve talked a little bit about your daughter Carol, and she asked you a question that I want to tweak a little bit and ask you. You mentioned in one of the chapters that she said to you, ‘What are your big plans for 2017?’ And that’s when you said to her, ‘To finally finish my book.’ So, my question to you is: What are your big plans for the rest of 2018 and beyond? What’s next on the horizon for you?

MC: High on the list is to sell thousands of books, not hundreds. I’m not yet to the first thousand. Because I think I have something to offer people. I believe in what I’ve learned from the journey and I believe my life has sufficiently been a different collection of a lot of ups and downs that I could pass it on to others, particularly women. I have women who are strangers that call me and want to talk to me and get my input and I love doing it. It’s not hard to get an appointment with Mimi, it really isn’t, because I’ve learned from all these experiences. I can’t explain how good one feels when you’ve done something that has impacted positively on a person’s life and I’ve done that in more than one or two cases, mostly women but occasionally a few men. One of those men is [Penn State Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations] Rich Bundy, whose dream job was to come here after I convinced him that he should switch direction and consider a life in development, because he was so good at it as a student when I interacted with him. That’s how I met him. Once he got into it, he knew that he wanted to end his career at Penn State, where he grew up in this community. And there he is in his dream job, full of energy, full of new ideas and doing an unbelievable job and I had a little bit of a role in that. I feel better than he does, and I met him when he was co-chair of the Sy Barash Regatta. So I really believe whatever you give with your heart, you get back in spades. It always comes back to reward you in some manner. Feeling good about your past is a significant part of your future, in my mind. 

MH: I love that. So, writing this book sort of put you in that frame of mind?

MC: Yes, and I’m also a great student of history. I love history. There are certain parts of history that wouldn’t be preserved if I hadn’t written this book, in my opinion.

MH: Can you give me one example?

MC: Well, the University leasing the land to the Alpha Ambulance and encouraging it to become LifeLink and serve people better. I was in the middle of that, because of the experiences I was lucky enough to have on both sides of the avenue. You can’t necessarily have as much enjoyment as I have unless you’ve been on both sides of the avenue. I didn’t make it happen but I was blessed to be a part of it.

MH: You were so savvy and wise in the way you navigated the politics when you talk about your time on the Penn State Board of Trustees.

MC: But I couldn’t have done it without Lou. He came up with the one thing that made that election work. I would’ve never thought of it. That’s why I had to tell his story. He was a wise guy in a positive way — brilliant. He re-read the classics all the time, and he was a wonderful partner. In not quite 11 years, we did so much for one another. But the other thing is, second love, you know what you want and what you expect. First love, I didn’t know what I was doing, Sy was just a nice guy all the time and I loved him dearly. But what made me recover from his loss was a second husband who was quite different, who taught me more intellectually and made me a better business person. In the latter part of my life I was a much better business person because I was married to a lawyer but he could’ve been an accountant. He was a wise, wonderful man. And we saved one another. He had a terrible tragedy. 

MH: Both Sy and Lou were great partners in serving and giving to the community. That motivates you so much, and I admire that. Can you talk about why philanthropy means so much to you?

MC: Well, first of all, I have everything I need. I live in a beautiful place. I have nice clothes and can buy whatever clothes I want. I didn’t grow up that way but I was taught the real value of life — and the real value of life is transferring on to other people your good fortune. Whether it’s when you make $10,000 or $15,000 a year or when you make hundreds thousands of dollars, there is more personal growth in reaching out of yourself and spreading so-called wealth or wisdom, and having other people feel they’ve experienced advancement in their life and you can feel you’ve played a role in it. When I saw Joseph Allen in ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ playing the leading role, I could’ve been his mother, because I was so proud of him. As the scholar that Barbara and I financed, I wanted to jump out of my seat at the end of the show and say, ‘I helped make this happen!’ You can’t put a value on that, in terms of how you recover from your anxiety. My going to that show, other than the pills I took to get better, that was great medicine for my anxiety and depression.

MH: So, philanthropy does great things for the giver?

MC: You bet, more than the receiver. Because it lasts longer.

MH: You have so generously decided the proceeds from this book would support students who study abroad in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. I am so grateful and I know generations of students will be too. Why is study abroad so important? 

MC: Well, we’re living in a global society. There are so many problems worldwide. We need young people to physically see and experience how lucky they are to have the opportunities that we’ve had up to now in our country. I believe that study abroad in this generation is as important as going to college was in my generation. It’s at the top of the schedule within the total program because you can’t just think or live by yourself. You have to see how others thrive, how others suffer and starve and get killed. I just think everybody has to have that experience, within their total education.

MH: And so many students can’t afford it without financial help.

MC: I could’ve never afforded Penn State without financial help.

MH: So, what a wonderful blessing and gift this book is for readers — and it’s also going to be a blessing and gift for students.

MC: Into perpetuity, that’s the best part of giving. If you can give in a fashion that it goes on from generation to generation, you can feel good about the time you spent above the dirt.

MH: You told me you were working on this book, and I was eager to read it. I can tell you I wasn’t disappointed in the least. I want to re-read it because it had so many riches in it. It’s the kind of book I’ll be coming back to again and again. Is there anything you hope people, local folks, understand about this book that maybe we haven’t talked about?

MC: Well, part of what I tried to mix in was little anecdotes about prejudice and how horrible it is. Because there are still people who don’t yet understand we’re all born in the same fashion and the constitution gives us equal rights and protection. If I let the liberal side of me get away from me, I would get too many people in this valley churned up. So, I tried to introduce it in places that were a part of my history. They can sit and ponder, ‘Why in the world couldn’t a black person get a haircut?’ And they could sit and ponder, ‘Why didn’t they take additional Jews until they needed them?’ Because they couldn’t exist without them. Today there’s still a huge absence of acceptance and we can’t hide it in the background anymore. They have every right to express themselves. I mean, stop it already! We’re all entitled to equal rights under the law and that’s not even happening today.  

MH: You were a real pioneer.

MC: I’m prone to be open minded and outspoken. I want to be remembered, and maybe this will help, as a person who tried to make everything around me a better place, or at least improve the process — to leave having left a legacy. My tangible legacy probably is Town & Gown, it’s not the billboards I owned. Town & Gown will be something of historical relevance that lasts from generation to generation. And for as long as I can do it, I’ll have an interview at the end of the magazine.

MH: Thank you for my opportunity to do this interview, Mimi.

Last Updated July 18, 2018