Eat First, Cry Later: Life Lessons from a First-Generation College Graduate, Penn State Alumna and Female CEO, Mimi Barash Coppersmith, 2018
If you have spent any amount of time in State College, Pennsylvania you will have encountered Mimi’s imprint. Whether it be her publications such as Town & Gown, her philanthropies such as the Pink Zone, or her civic activities such as serving Penn State as its first woman Chair of the Board of Trustees, Mimi is a fixture in State College life and has been since she arrived as an undergraduate in August 1950.
To celebrate her 85th birthday, Mimi collaborated with her daughter Carol to bring forth an autobiography with descriptive charisma, personal charm, stoic chutzpah, and fascinating chapters of her life’s journey. Even if you think you know her, this book will surprise you. Eat First, Cry Later is defined by the forty-eight life lessons sprinkled throughout the narrative. Structured as a chronological journey of learning and sharing the teachings each experience afforded her, Mimi provides a captivating example of leadership, determination, and savvy business acumen. For example, Lesson #37 encourages “Each of us, to be successful needs to establish and maintain a voice and presence in public” which, indeed, has been how Mimi has lived her life.
To appreciate the memories and stories captured in the book, the reader must note, as Mimi advises, that discussing our experiences and struggles as she is with this book serves as a gift “we gave to one another through shared storytelling.” She begins her story by stating, “I thought of myself as an investigative journalist at the intersection of others’ lives…From my mother, I learned both the courage and spirit to keep moving forward.” Mimi also credits her mother’s wisdom with the book’s title but it is her brother’s death during World War II that “is the single incident that has had the most profound impact on my direction in life.”
As she delineates her college career at Penn State, her first marriage to Sy Barash, and their collaboration to begin a new business in State College, she posits “Take advantage of the activities that are right in front of you to learn, to meet people who challenge you, and to make a demonstrable difference in the lives of others…In business relationships and personal relationships, focusing on others is not just important: it is crucial.” She goes on to challenge others to follow her path of “moving out of your comfort zone” because it “allows for greater possibilities – and often requires asking other people to help.”
During her years as a business woman in State College, she participated in numerous community activities and charitable events, all described in the book. Her advice, specific to Arts Fest, but translatable to all her participatory ventures states “My heart beats with special pride for what this collective community has created. (Arts Fest) one of the many reminders of how work in the community pays back again and again, and of so many wonderful local people who worked hard and overcame roadblocks to create something that is larger than any of us could do alone.” This description applies to the Pink Zone and many other civic ventures.
The premature death of Sy Barash, her second marriage to Lou Coppersmith, a bout with breast cancer, and her growing leadership in the burgeoning State College community all detail the specifications for her next series of lessons. She reminds her readers that “The great work you do fades quickly…don’t rest on your laurels. Keep thinking about your next big idea.” Further she recommends that each of us face challenges which require that “sometimes in life you just keep going.” You must face obstacles head on and “Insist on being taken seriously, no matter your audience, no matter your odds.”
Around the time Mimi was elected to chair Penn State’s Board of Trustees, the first woman to do so, she had the opportunity to reflect on her years in State College and discovered that “Nothing makes me feel more alive and essentially myself than being able to connect State College and Penn State in some new way that honors multiple points of view and opens up opportunities for people, like myself, who started out with few assets other than their will to flourish and succeed.” Recalling the collaborations with Penn State, the Downtown Improvement District, the local Jewish community, and many non-profit organizations, Mimi notes “The thread that runs through everything that makes me truly happy is making it possible for other people to be as lucky; to receive a great education, to access world-class health care, and to live in a community where you are valued and able to thrive as who you are.”
Eat First, Cry Later continues as an open discussion of her failed third marriage, reconciliations with her daughters, town-gown contretemps, and changing business models including selling her beloved business. She discusses the phenomenal people she met in her life, like Barbara Palmer and Jesse Owens. She regales the reader with tales of the creative talents that worked for her over the years. One of my personal favorites being the indomitable Witt Yeagley. And she thanks the many business colleagues who she learned from over the years as her businesses grew and diversified.
Finally, she sums up her personal philosophy and the reason she wanted to see this book published. In Lesson #48, Mimi concludes that she wants to “Bring hope and courage to others in these troubled times. That’s why we’re here; that’s all we have, and it is enough.”
Proceeds from the sale of Eat First, Cry Later will benefit Study Abroad Scholarships in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State.
Review by Jackie R. Esposito