Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Community Catalyst: T&G founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith is retiring, but her passion for helping others is as strong as ever

Enduring the seclusion of the shutdown caused by the pandemic in the past year and approaching her 88th birthday, Mimi Ungar Barash Coppersmith has made the difficult decision to step away from Town&Gown’s day-to-day advertising sales effort.

Since 2008, she has held this consultant role after selling Barash Media to Gazette Printers, a division of Indiana Printing & Publishing. However, she plans to continue her Lunch with Mimi column in Town&Gown, and focus on her volunteer and philanthropic work in the community to make a difference, particularly in women’s lives.

“I believe that the magazine can be an important part of my legacy when I am gone,” Mimi says. “The staff knows they can call on me for help in every way. … I’m going to be 88 years old this year, and I just want to wake up every morning ready to do what I love to do most, and that’s to help other people. It gives me the greatest pleasure when I can help other women. I want to help women unlock who they are and who they want to be. I’ve identified it as what has helped me survive and recover from losses that still bring tears to my eyes, happy tears that I have put in their place in my life, but not allowed them to overcome me with grief.”

For more than 55 years as Town&Gown’s matriarch and founder, Mimi has fondly called the magazine her third child. Under her nurturing watch, her lasting legacy with Town&Gown is the print publication’s success in highlighting the events and local businesses in Happy Valley, and capturing the history of State College and Penn State.

The magazine premiered in January 1966. The hiring of Witt Yeagley in 1969 as its managing editor and sales manager was a pivotal moment in setting the editorial direction toward featuring the history of the region, with stories and profiles of notable people in the community. Often, Town&Gown touched on topics that created a buzz, providing a voice of change and progress, inspiring conversations to occur, uniting organizations with supporters and volunteers, and connecting with townspeople and visitors alike.

To many who know Mimi professionally and personally, she is a catalyst for meaningful change, growth, and progress in Happy Valley. It comes as no surprise that she wants to spend her retirement years helping other people and making the community better for future generations. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “catalyst” is defined as an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Mimi is a catalyst; the term encapsulates a remarkable woman who continues to be a force of change in our community.

Challenging times

Early on with Town&Gown, long before her popular Lunch with Mimi column, Mimi wrote a monthly column called Catalyst in which she shared her perspective. Unfortunately, with the magazine in its infancy in the late 1960s, Mimi learned that people weren’t ready for an outspoken Jewish woman. She landed in some hot water after publishing an article protesting the Elks Club’s refusal to admit African-American members. To save the magazine from being boycotted by advertisers and businesspeople who were active in the Elks Club, she ended the column.

A challenging moment to swallow for sure, but this was not Mimi’s first, and certainly not her last, brush with speaking up against injustice and other contentious issues in and around the community. As editorial page director of The Daily Collegian in 1953, she wrote a weekly column entitled Strictly from Ungar in which she stirred the pot, reporting on race relations and the student side of hot-button issues at Penn State.

Her longtime friend and mentee Anne Ard, executive director of Centre Safe, recalls, “There is a quote that Mimi would say a million times by Eleanor Roosevelt. It states that a woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.”

Throughout her life, Mimi has shown an unwavering dedication and determination to do the right thing and to make a difference. Mimi credits her daughter Carol with making her 2018 memoir, Eat First, Cry Later, happen.In that,Mimi revealed that her father, Max, often told her that she could change the world if she put her whole mind into her work. And she learned from her mother, Tillie, to move forward with courage and spirit, taking care of herself and others first, and then, over time, letting the sadness and horror work their way through.

In her memoir, she says, “At a young age, I learned that life is filled with losses that feel unendurable, but somehow you go on. We often learn the most from our toughest, darkest days.”

In Eat First, Cry Later, she sheds light on some of her darkest moments: The loss of two beloved husbands, Sy Barash and Lou Coppersmith; the struggles of single motherhood; the stresses of being a woman boss; surviving breast cancer; her third husband’s infidelity; divorce; and depression. By sharing these difficult moments in her life, she hopes that it will help others find the strength to overcome their own personal tragedies and tribulations.

A passion for service

Linda Gall, a close friend and fellow volunteer, says, “I know she’s not going to be sitting in a rocking chair in the coming years. I have no doubt that she will be looking for ways to be helpful, and she, like so many of us … have learned that in volunteering, you get so much out of the giving of yourself that it really is one of the most rewarding ways you can spend your time.”

Gall cites another quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “If I were asked what is the best thing one can expect in life, I would say it is the privilege of being useful.”

The quote struck Gall as how Mimi approaches her life.

“Her passion for Penn State and her service in the community is really unparalleled,” Gall says. “When she cares about something, she puts her arms around it and is so devoted to making it a success.”

Ard explains that Mimi never does anything halfway.

“I don’t for one minute believe that she’s actually going to retire, because she’s just got way too much energy and investment in this community,” Ard says. “I’ve learned so much from her about what it means to be an integral part of a community and about women’s leadership. She has consistently helped promote Centre Safe and educated the community about the work that we do for domestic and sexual violence survivors. We need her wisdom and insight.”

Over the decades since arriving in State College in 1950, Mimi has served the community in many capacities. She was president of the State College Area Chamber of Commerce (now CBICC), the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, and the Renaissance Fund; capital campaign coordinator for Centre LifeLink EMS; Palmer Museum of Art Advisory Board member; and honorary chair of the State College Choral Society’s Holocaust Memorial Project, just to name a few.

Her philanthropic contributions to causes are too numerous to list, but include the American Cancer Society, Pennsylvania Pink Zone, the Girl Scouts, Centre Safe, the Youth Service Bureau, Jana Marie Foundation, Strawberry Fields, and Centre County Historical Society, as well as scholarship funds through Centre Gives and Penn State.

On that other side of College Avenue, she was elected in 1990 as the first woman chair of the Penn State Board of Trustees and served two years in that role. As a donor to Penn State at the highest level, she is an Elm Member of the Mount Nittany Society, with lifetime giving of more than $1 million.

Richard Bundy III, Penn State vice president for development and alumni relations, says that Mimi has given thousands of individual gifts and has spread that generosity throughout the institution.

“Mimi has made a gift to every single commonwealth campus, which is just extraordinary that she found a reason to support every one of them over her lifetime of philanthropy, and that’s on top of all of the things that she’s done here at University Park,” he says.

Like many others blessed to have been mentored by Mimi over the years, Bundy credits her for getting him his first job in development, setting him up on a career path and putting the bug in his ear that maybe someday, he could be the vice president of development for Penn State.

“Mimi always sees great possibility that maybe you’re not even allowing yourself to dream that far in advance,” he says. “If she’s a chess player, she’s five moves in front of you, in terms of articulating big, bold, and audacious goals. And then, she’s also your best cheerleader and keeps saying, ‘You’re going to do it, and someday when you do, I’m going to be so proud of you.’”

Looking ahead

As Mimi looks forward to the next chapter of her life, she wants to continue advocating for women, serve as a mentor to share her extensive knowledge in sales and fundraising, and dedicate her energies to build awareness for causes close to her heart.

She is also constantly working on improving herself.

“I’m learning every day in my life how to be a better mother and grandmother, because time runs out if you don’t try. It’s not easy being a mother, a working mother, and a mother active in the community. I wanted to do all that and I did all that. I’m happy I did, but I’m not happy that I didn’t have more time with my two daughters, Carol and Nan, and their five children, so I am continuously working on that,” says Mimi. “Nan and I speak every day.”

Lunch with Mimi will carry on in Town&Gown, inciting meaningful conversations with noteworthy people in and around town and Penn State.

“I leave Town&Gown in good hands, with enthusiasm. They have some incredible staff people that are doing a better job than ever. Everyone at Town&Gown is dedicated and shares a sense of pride in our journey. The magazine has earned its reputation and it knows how to retain it,” Mimi says.

Those who know Mimi can’t wait to see what she gets into next. Maybe there is a revival of her ever-popular Lunch with Mimi Live. One thing is for sure: Mimi seems to reinvent herself every decade, showing off her unique ability to persevere over adversity with an uncanny resilience that makes her truly an inspiration.

Vilma Shu is the former general manager of Barash Media, whose friendship with Mimi began more than 16 years ago when she started as an editorial intern for Town&Gown. Mentored by Mimi through her professional and personal life, she is currently a public relations specialist, writer, and editor for Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology.