1ST PLACE FCA AWARD WINNER - 2010
'Never Give Up on Your Happiness'
Life lessons from Phi Sig's indomitable Mimi Barash Coppersmith -
devoted women's advocate and Penn State's No. 1 fan
May 5, 2009
It’s been a long time since Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat up late at night on the campus of Penn State University, chatting with her Phi Sigma Sigma sisters about anything and everything in the years when our Beta Eta Chapter was still active there.
Back then, in the early 1950s, she didn’t dream she’d one day shake up the male-dominated campus establishment by becoming the first female chairman of Penn State’s Board of Trustees in 1991 (populated, as it was, by male presidents from world-famous companies like Merrill Lynch, Merck and Quaker State Oil). She didn’t envision raising hundreds of thousands of dollars (even millions, but she’s never counted) for too many philanthropic and women’s causes to name. She didn’t realize she’d ultimately become one of the best-known personalities and patronesses associated with the university – indeed, in many circles, as renowned as legendary Nittany Lions football coach Joe Paterno himself.
No – back then, she was Marian “Mimi” Ungar. A Phi Sig sister and journalism honors student dating the love of her life, Beta Sig brother Sy Barash. A young woman from middle-class roots who looked forward to a writing career, raising a family and creating her own destiny.
All that and more, she has surely done. At age 75, she’s worked hard to build the life she has, though it wasn’t always easy. And for Mimi – a self-described driven professional who will never fully retire but, having sold off most of her advertising businesses in recent years, is finally glad to have the time to visit her two daughters and five grandchildren and see more of the world beyond Happy Valley – that’s an important message she wants her high-achieving Phi Sigma Sigma sisters to know, whatever their age:
Life is beautiful and, at times in every woman’s life, it can be painful. Sometimes, it will be difficult – perhaps, too much to bear.
But no matter what troubles you face, you must find the strength within you to get through, believing with all your heart that there is a light at the end of the tunnel – that someday you’ll be happier and stronger for the effort, and in the best position to leave a positive legacy benefiting others as you always envisioned you would.
To Mimi, this isn’t a platitude. She knows it’s true from experience.
Strength in adversity
There’s the story of Mimi (pronounced “Mim-ee”) that’s well documented in the newspapers, history books and New York society pages. Her years running a successful advertising and marketing company, The Barash Group, which published State College’s Town & Gown magazine for nearly 50 years. The endless fundraising fêtes to provide deserving students with scholarships (in part because she remembered how tough it was to get through college herself). The preservation efforts to protect iconic Mt. Nittany (from which Penn State’s mascot gets its name) from encroaching development. The relentless campaigns, behind the scenes and in the public eye, to bring women’s studies and services to Penn State for the first time.
And then there’s the story of Mimi that she’s only recently begun sharing – with an untroubled and open heart because she sees it as the crowning part of the vast legacy she’s worked so hard, for so many years, to secure for the benefit of others, especially women.
Few people know that, in 2006, Mimi – who has countless friends around the world, and couldn’t be more at home anywhere than State College – fell into a deep, soul-crushing depression from which she couldn’t escape. It was a private hell, one even the people closest to her weren’t remotely aware of.
She’d seen tough times before. She endured the grief of losing both her husbands – Sy, a prominent business and civic leader who passed away when their children were still young, and W. Louis Coppersmith, a Pennsylvania state senator. She herself had survived both breast and thyroid cancer. She’d overcome some pretty sticky situations as the president and owner of a thriving advertising and marketing business – which, in its heyday, had 70 employees in three states. She’d even had to endure a few controversies while serving 21 years as an outspoken member of Penn State’s Board of Trustees – at one point successfully fending off calls by an angry community leader to step down.
But 2006 was different. She was embroiled in a divorce with a high-profile New York judge who broke her heart. She was as active as ever, but beginning to step away from the business ventures that largely defined her life. She was surrounded by people who knew and respected her, but she wasn’t able to reach out to them for help. She didn’t have the heart to contact her daughters, who had busy lives and families of their own.
For the first time in her life, Mimi – the indomitable woman of success – found herself alone and facing a terrible abyss of darkness. All the sacrifices made through years of 90-hour workweeks building her business and being a philanthropist, all those difficulties she’d faced, finally came home to roost.
“I almost gave up,” Mimi admits. “I wanted to, but I knew it couldn’t, so I made a decision and told someone I trusted (a doctor) I was in real trouble. I was lucky. He helped me.” That began a nearly 3-year therapeutic journey of introspection and healing that Mimi says didn’t just save her life – it rejuvenated her spirit.
“I’m happier now than I have ever been,” she says, attributing the change to her courage to seek professional help and the support of family and trusted friends. “Women – especially high-achieving women – need to see there’s happiness for them. They need good friends – not a lot, but you need them. You need to do what you like to do. But it all starts with being happy with yourself first. You have to take care of you. Then, and only then, can you truly share that happiness with others by helping those who need it, too.”
One of the greatest sources of happiness in Mimi’s life is mentoring women to achieve their own dreams – much as her mother, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, did for her.
Whether they’re college students or 50-year-old graphic designers with hopes of entering the workforce, they can usually work their way into Mimi's busy schedule (she’s still consulting, still involved in charity work) – because mentoring women is as much a priority today as it ever was, she says.
That’s another message she wants her sisters to hear: how important it is to assist other women, whether in the workplace, through philanthropic work, or in education.
“Experience carries with it a responsibility to share what you know,” she says. “One of the reasons I was put here was to make it possible for women to pursue their goals.”
In her view, Phi Sigma Sigma provides the perfect opportunity for women to work together and make a real difference in the world. Indeed, she credits her sorority experiences with showing her the power of teamwork and the joy that comes from shared rewards for collective accomplishments.
“Success within a community doesn’t just bring satisfaction, recognition and fulfillment to you,” she explains. “It can bring honor and recognition to everyone in that group, and anyone whose lives you touch – your sorority, your family and your friends."
And, Mimi adds, there’s something very powerful and meaningful about that – something that gives us, as women of passion and purpose, even greater value and happiness while we pursue our own definitions of success and dreams for the future, whatever they may be.
Learn more about Marian “Mimi” Ungar Barash Coppersmith:
Mimi Barash Coppersmith, c/o The Barash Group, 403 S. Allen St., Ste. 77, State College, PA 16801
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