Dr. Cleaster Mims is a mother, an educator, a community leader, a political activist, a CEO and now, an author.
In Cincinnati’s African-American community, she is hailed as a pioneer and a role model and she documents her long journey in her newly released memoir “One Peanut at a Time.”
Mims, 82, of Amberley Village, believes in setting goals and achieving them.
“I rely each day on my spirit, my intuition, my knowledge and my passion to make the world a better place,” Mims said.
In her book and in person, Mims confides that her life experiences are like that of a long-distance runner who runs one marathon at a time, which led to her book title “One Peanut at a Time.”
The daughter of a farmer and the second oldest of eight children, Mims drew on her family life, her faith, her fortitude and the frugality with which she grew up to achieve and fight for herself and others.
“The most fulfilling part about mentoring is that once you pour into someone’s life with passion and change it, what you gave them can never be taken away. That’s magic,” she said.
Mims was born and raised in Enterprise, Alabama. After one year of college, she came to Cincinnati to stay with an aunt “because there were no jobs in the South at the time without a college degree.”
Mims ended up working at the Cincinnati Public Schools as a secretary to the controller. She later married Julius Mims, a machinist and had a son Kenneth, who is now 52 years old and is now a doctor in Atlanta. Julius died in 2011 of cancer.
When Kenneth was 3 years old and began pre-school, Mims started classes at Xavier. This was before women could officially enroll. Therefore, she attended as a non-traditional student, becoming not only a member of a select group but also the first African-American female on campus. She graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in communications.
Her fellow students, who were at least eight years younger than her, were fascinated by her experiences prior to the Civil Rights Era.
“I told them what it was like to live down South, how my family had participated in marches and how important it is to always be engaged in your community,” Mims said. “They would sit with me for hours and ask me questions. Those discussions continued outside the classroom.”
After she graduated, she began a 30-year career as an educator.
She taught a weekly communication course at Xavier for years and taught high school English in Cincinnati Public Schools.
In 1991, she founded the Marva Collins Preparatory School in Roselawn, which in 2008, she renamed Cleaster Mims College Prep. It was a private school where she volunteered to educate children from pre-K to eighth grade.
She recalls how she collected dedicated teachers, picked up secondhand materials and held classes in the basement of a church with 26 students and turned it into a multimillion-dollar operation.
“We were proud of the fact that one hundred percent of the students who started with us in pre-K went all the way to eighth grade and then to college,” she said.
The economy and challenges of dealing with the district and the curriculum eventually caused the school to close. But Mims’ dedication as an educator won her many awards, including recognition by then-President Bill Clinton.
Mims says she is “beyond satisfied” with her life because “I never allowed people to stop me along my way. Today, I am at peace. I am fulfilling the purpose for which God placed me here.”
To many, Mims is a hero.
“She is a modern-day Mother Teresa because she is the one person who constantly strives for others and motivates them to rise up and recognize who they are and that they have a right to be themselves,” said Fred Taylor, 48, an educator at Cincinnati Public Schools.
To others, she is a success story for their community.
“Mrs. Mims is a pillar of Cincinnati,” said Paul Booth, 33, who has known her since he was in fourth grade. “She is an outstanding educator who has been a tremendous role model for African-Americans of perseverance and tenacity to overcome obstacles and make a substantial difference in the community.”
Booth is president of Momentum Restaurants Inc./McDonald’s and the pastor at Legacy Pointe Church.
Pat Debonnette, 74, a personal motivator and retired community activist in Chicago, met and bonded with Mims at a conference in 1991.
“She has got to be the most admired individual I have met in my lifetime. She is the class of a national treasure. She has integrity, humility and she was a phenomenal educator,” said Debonnette, who added she is not easily impressed because she has met and worked with many famous people, including President Obama when he was a community organizer.
Mims’ family echoes praise for her.
Allie Whitehurst, 67, her youngest sister, a retired teacher who lives in Oakland, California, said that what she loves about Mims is that “while she is comfortable and confident, she is never arrogant.”
“She has always worked hard without whining or worrying. Although she encountered people who were envious or just mean and sought to harm her, she did not respond to them. She forgave,” Whitehurst said.
She says the family’s deep faith shaped the children.
“Every day, she gives in some way to her family, her friends and her community. We are so proud of her,” Whitehurst said.