Xavier Magazine

Political Bug

Erin McDermott caught the political fever on the 2004 presidential campaign trail while canvassing neighborhoods, attending rallies and phoning voters on behalf of the Bush/Cheney camp. And she still hasn’t recovered.

“In the last couple of weeks before the election, there’s an adrenaline rush that goes with it that makes it worth the long hours, the hard work,” McDermott says. “It was something I never experienced before, but it was definitely the hook into politics for me.”

Two years later she took a summer internship with former House Majority Leader John Boehner, another Xavier graduate, and then moved to Washington after graduating in 2007 and landed a position in the U.S. Department of Education where she worked for Undersecretary of Education Sara Martinez Tucker.

“I was her access person,” McDermott says. “It was my job as a policy analyst to advise her, brief her and prep her on what she would have to do around higher education accessibility.”

Although her term as a political appointee ended with the Bush presidency, McDermott quickly found a non-political job with the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education where she now manages a portfolio of congressionally directed grants. She’s also pursuing dual master’s degrees in government and business at Johns Hopkins University. McDermott admits, however, that she’s ready for the next round of elections.

“Some jobs fit people’s styles and personalities better than others,” she says. “I guess I’m learning now that a political job is right up my alley.”

Xavier Magazine

Profile: Suzanne Kathman

Bachelor of Arts, 1990
Executive director, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries

Basic Questions | After graduating with a nursing degree in 1974, Kathman began a 21-year career in critical-care nursing. She spent the last 15 years in the open-heart intensive care unit. “I loved being a critical-care nurse, but somewhere in my 30s, I started to have some of the basic questions like, ‘What is the overall purpose of my life?’ I had the sense something was missing.”

A Shifted Focus | Soon she found her way to Xavier with the intent of earning a BSN. After taking electives in history, however, she shifted focus. For a particular class, she found herself spending a lot of time at the downtown Cincinnati library. “In the course of my presence there, I became very aware of the homeless people coming into the library. They were sitting in there to get out of the cold and were eating out of the garbage cans.”

The Right Place | “I had this movement started in me, and I wanted to do something about this situation.” She mentioned this to a friend at church who suggested she volunteer for Bethany House of Hospitality, a shelter for women and children run by the Sisters of Mercy. “I started volunteering there with the intent of only working a couple of hours each month, and I just felt like I was where I was supposed to be.”

The Right Time | At the same time, she began a separate journey with the Sisters of Mercy. “I felt very much like that was an extension of my family. It felt like I had come home to something that I didn’t know was missing. It was all part of that spiritual discernment. It led me to understand that my call was not to vow religious life, but I did feel called to become a Mercy associate, which entails making a covenant with the Sisters of Mercy to share in their prayer life, their ministry and their community.” Today, she lives in the community house with the sisters.

Making Connections | Kathman also volunteered with the Sisters of Mercy H.O.M.E. (House of Mercy Environment) program, which provides care to low-income seniors. After realizing that these seniors needed more than her once-a-week visits, she came up with the idea to train homeless or low-income women as homecare aides to provide the needed services and break the cycle of poverty. So, in 1993, she founded Healing Connections Associates to implement the nurse aide training program.

Merging Ministries | A few years ago, Kathman began talking to two other Sisters of Mercy ministries about the possibility of combining their efforts. Last April, Kathman led the merger of Healing Connections Associates, the Sisters of Mercy H.O.M.E. program and Mercy Connections into Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, of which she is the executive director.  “We couldn’t have been timelier in terms of economy when small non-profits really struggle to raise the resources that they need. We’ve become more efficient. We’ve become more effective. We’ve strengthened our ability to serve the needs of the community. It’s been a great experience.”

Xavier Magazine

Designer Tea

Danielle DiBenedetto, a North Olmstead, Ohio, native and 2003 graduate, always knew she wanted to do something with graphics, but she also wanted to work in fashion. Inspired by the Victorian Era, the former art student researched this period and often came across the subject “proper tea etiquette.” Subsequently, in 2007 she launched Proper Tea Wear, a specialty line of T-shirts, cami sets and scarves packaged in oversized tea bags. 

“I decided on Proper Tea because in my generation, proper attire is a T-shirt,” she says. “I thought it was the best way to showcase not only the fashion line, but give me the chance to put my art into it.”

In addition to art, DiBenedetto selects the fabric, designs the fit and works with a company in India that custom-makes the T-shirts to her specifications. “It’s a cutthroat industry, so I have to go with the best of the best, and everything has to be perfect because, being a graphic designer, everything is presentation.”

The T-shirts, made from super soft prewashed cotton, come in an assortment of tea “flavors,” ranging from raspberry to iced mint to calming chamomile. So far, the line sells in about 150 boutiques across the country, as well as Nordstrom and Las Vegas casinos such as The Bellagio, MGM Grand and The Palms.

DiBenedetto, who works closely with her mom, Karen, hopes to add a men’s and children’s line in the next few years. In the meantime, though, she’s happy to see her work getting nods from both local and national press.

“The best thing about running my own business is the creative freedom, she says. “I enjoy hearing people’s advice but, in the end, I love being able to create a T-shirt from concept to the finished product and have complete control of how I want it to look. It is amazing to create a label and see it in stores the way you envision it.”

To see more Tea wear, visit

Xavier Magazine

Profile: Cleaster Mims

Bachelor of Arts in Communications, 1971; Master of Education, 1976
Founder, Cleaster Mims College Preparatory School

Enterprising Start | Mims, who grew up in Enterprise, Ala., attended Tuskegee University for one year before dropping out because of a lack of funds. “I came to Cincinnati because there were no jobs for me in the South at that time if you did not have a college degree. So I came here to live with an aunt to work.”

Early Education | She wound up working with Cincinnati Public Schools in the business manager’s office, as secretary to the controller. She later married and had a son. When he was 2 years old, she enrolled him in preschool and started taking classes at Xavier. The year was 1966, before women could officially enroll, but she was able to attend as a non-traditional student. Not only was she one of a handful of women, but she was also the first African-American female on campus.

Continuing Education | Mims found that the students, most of whom were about 6 to 8 years younger, were intrigued by her experiences during the Civil Rights Era. “Frequently, we would gather in the dining room over in the cafeteria, and they would just gather around me and ask me questions about things. It was an extension of the classroom, our discussions.”

Behind the Name | Mims made a career of teaching high school English in the Cincinnati Public Schools. She also taught a speech communications course every Wednesday night at Xavier for a number of years. Mims retired from the public school system in 1991 to found the Marva Collins Preparatory School, recently renamed Cleaster Mims College Prep, a private school for children from pre-K to eighth grade. “We started the school with volunteers.” Mims still volunteers her services today.

Track Record | The school focuses on interactive learning in the classroom, use of the Socratic method and phonics. “We have found that 100 percent of students who start with us in pre-K and go all the way to eighth grade have gone on to highly selective schools and are in college, or are on their way to college.”

Developing Her Destiny | Today the school has about 50 or 60 children, down from 250 in 2001, which Mims attributes to the economic downturn, but she’s slowly rebuilding enrollment. “I think sometimes it was my destiny to do this. I had been through hard times in my life and to develop this school took a lot of patience, a lot of fortitude, a lot of frugality, which I had.”

Daily Joy | “People ask me, ‘How can you do this for so long?’ It’s because I wake up in the morning excited about what I’m going to face during the day. There’s nothing greater than to see a 3-year-old running down the hall to my office and saying, ‘Mrs. Mims! I can read!’ And then you pick them up and sit them on your lap and have them read to you, and then you make a big
to-do over that, as if they just had a birthday party.”

Xavier Magazine

Tub Time

When Sara Kranson’s son outgrew his infant tub, she upgraded him to a full-size bathtub, which was so big that he often slipped and hit his head. When the 2002 graduate couldn’t find a suitable alternative, she and her husband devised their own solution: They taped together inflatable bath pillows and attached them to the sides of the tub with suction cups.

Thinking that other parents might like the idea as well, the couple talked to a local inventors group and a patent attorney to see if the idea had merit. Finally, the couple sent a picture of an updated prototype to baby catalog One Step Ahead. “That was Tuesday night, and they called us Wednesday morning, like, ‘We love your idea,’ ” Kranson says. “And they connected us to a company that strictly did inflatables. That’s when we got the real product, and we were able to start selling it.”

Now Kranson regularly receives orders for Tub-Time Bumpers through the catalog, her own online site and from independent retailers across the country. “We put letters and shapes and colors on it, because we figure they should be learning while they’re in that tub,” Kranson says. “It’s really neat, because my kids will point to letters, and it has become an interactive tool for parents.”

The Kransons have since come out with three new product lines, two with different patterns and a deluxe version that includes a flap for the lip of the tub that provides an armrest for parents.

“We’re having a ball, but it’s definitely a lot of work,” says Kranson. “But I believe in it and that’s why we keep pursuing it.”

Xavier Magazine

Profile: John Cox

Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, 1968
CEO, Halfacre Construction
Sarasota, Fla.

Starting Out | After graduation, Cox landed a job as a financial analyst trainee. “My first job was with NCR, and I got it out of the recruiting office. I was only there a year. They kept on promoting me but told me that I would have to wait two years for my next promotion. I said, ‘I’m not waiting that long.’ ”

Switching It Up | He eventually found himself developing commercial property in Columbus, Ohio. “The market was so horrible in Columbus. That’s when the interest rates were sky high, so I decided to try a new approach, and I decided to come to Florida.”

Buying a Company | In 1984, Cox bought Halfacre Construction, a regional general contractor headquartered in Sarasota. Cox grew the business from $4 million in sales to more than $40 million. “Halfacre became a household name. We’ve built a number of shopping centers, industrial buildings—large ones, small ones—and done work at the Port of Tampa and the Port of Manatee.” One of the company’s largest projects was a 420,000-square-foot, $10-million manufacturing facility for PGT Industries.

Outside Interests | After arriving in Florida, Cox took an active interest in the Sarasota community and raised money for a number of organizations, including the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides free education to children of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps Special Operations personnel who are killed in a mission or training accident.

Special Athletes | In 1996, Cox founded the Special Athletes Boosters to provide money for Sarasota County Special Olympics to run their programs. He raised $60,000 that first year.  “We had a tennis tournament two years and we got the proceeds from a boat race for two years. We got a county grant and now we have a golf tournament.”

Building Dreams | Five years ago, Cox oversaw the building of the Gene Whipp Sports Center Complex for Special Athletes—a 5,000-square-foot fieldhouse with an outdoor eight-lane, all-weather track in nearby Venice. “It’s totally their facility. I got most of the work donated. Actually, we didn’t pay for anything except for the steel.” Today the facility is used by more than 400 athletes, a huge increase from the 50 athletes when Cox first got involved. Members of the Sarasota County Special Olympics dedicated a street to him, named John Cox Way, at a special unveiling ceremony last May.

Halfacre Future | As for the future of Halfacre, Cox began taking on an advisory role last year, allowing his son to run the day-to-day operations of the company. “Working with him is very good. He’s a very smart and intelligent person. And we get along very well because we both don’t have big egos.”

John Cox died of unknown causes the day before this magazine went to press.

Xavier Magazine

A Step Ahead

In her tiny apartment kitchen, Rosie Swan creams butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla in her stand mixer. After slowly adding flour and other dry ingredients, she forms the dough into round balls using a metal scoop, spaces them apart on a baking sheet and slides them into the preheated oven. The end result: cookies. 

And money.

And, perhaps, a better job after graduation.

Swan is the owner, manager, baker and delivery driver for The Cookie Jar, a company she created to deliver home-baked cookies around campus—and one of an increasing number of students who are forming their own businesses while still in school. Today, four student-owned businesses exist on campus: FliX, a video rental store; Muskie Market, an online grocery store; Xpress Laundry Service, which picks up and delivers laundry to residence halls; and, of course, The Cookie Jar.

Collectively, they helped The Princeton Review rank Xavier 17th among the top 25 most entrepreneurial schools in the nation. But, more important, the businesses are giving the students what they need to enter the business world one step ahead of others: experience.

Swan, a senior management and entrepreneurial studies student, learned due diligence by doing the requisite research before launching her business—finding students were, um, hungry for her idea. She learned quality control—any less-than-perfect cookies are relegated to a small red tin for hungry roommates. She’s learned economics and marketing and finance.

And, so far, her company is thriving, even winning second place in an undergraduate business competition sponsored by the Williams College of Business. The honor came with a $500 prize, but the real payoff may come later.

“Students believe that learning and managing businesses on campus before graduation gives them much preparation and better experience for their career,” says Daewoo Park, director for Xavier’s Entrepreneurial Center. “They have internship or co-op experience opportunities, but having the opportunity to start, run and manage their own business on campus is very good preparation for future success.”

Tom Awadalla, founder of Xpress Laundry Service, already knows how big of an advantage it can be. With an entire semester to go, he already accepted a job with Merrill Lynch after graduation. His business partners also accepted positions at Smith-Barney, Fifth Third Bank and National City. “The point really was to provide a résumé booster for applying for jobs,” says Awadalla. “And it’s been really beneficial in that sense because it really separates applicants.”

“Their businesses were like launching points for getting great jobs, because people are looking for entrepreneurs in businesses today,” says Tom Clark, former director of the Center, who handed the reins to Park this year.

Park is now developing a black belt program to boost confidence and increase the success rate. “The program consists of yellow, green, blue and black belts,” he says. “At each level, we measure the student’s knowledge, skills and confidence. If they have enough—understanding finance, marketing, accounting and all other areas—we’ll promote them to a black belt. When they finish the black belt program, they can put it on their résumé.”

For Swan, some impressive post-graduate opportunities await. In the meantime, she has some baking to do. In November, she met Kroger CEO David Dillon during a reception on campus and told him about The Cookie Jar.

“The next day I got an e-mail from him, and he ordered seven dozen cookies to be delivered downtown for his meeting on Monday.”

Dillon then offered Swan use of Kroger’s resources, including the opportunity to conduct sampling in its Norwood or Hyde Park stores and use of the company’s test kitchens. Swan also negotiated a contract with Coffee Emporium to bake large, gourmet-style cookies for its stores—one on campus and two around town.

“Some people ask me, ‘Don’t you hate baking cookies now?’ ”she says. “It’s really not that difficult, because I love baking, and the only time it gets really hard is if I have a rough week with homework or a lot of exams.”

In the meantime, she’s rolling in the dough.

Xavier Magazine

Viral Video

When an amateur video showing the explosive nature of Mentos candies when mixed with carbonated beverages hit the Internet and spawned hundreds of copycats, the company knew it had to capitalize on the unsolicited notoriety. But instead of trusting to the masses, the company decided to release its own brand of viral marketing. So they went to a Cincinnati advertising agency where they met Jim Clair, a 2005 graduate with a degree in electronic media. 

“Mentos wanted something that was a little more branded toward them that they could predict would take off just as well,” Clair says. “That was the problem … all the videos were being done and none were by them, so they couldn’t take credit for them.”

He suggested the idea of writing a viral video spot that could be blasted across YouTube along with
creating a Facebook account around a fictional character named Johnny Mentos, hoping to appeal to their 16- to 25-year-old audience.

Clair played writer, director, wardrobe master and casting agent for the commercial, which depicts a male student addicted to Facebook. Soon he’s failing classes and never meets new people. “Then he discovers Mentos and he’s all cool, and very successful and the girls all love him and he’s the life of the party, he dresses better, the whole thing,” Clair says.

With a crew of 11 technicians and 20 actors, he created a video that didn’t look like something a company would produce. And Clair wanted to keep it that way. “We tried to make it flow really nicely, just like it would on TV, but it was a commercial that would never ever play on TV, so you know that there’s something a little ‘off’ going on here,” he says. “It was just meant to keep people wondering and guessing, ‘Did Mentos do this?’ And I think we pulled it off pretty well.”

Xavier Magazine

Super Speaker

When the highway patrolman approached the idling vehicle to hand the driver a speeding ticket, he couldn’t help but laugh. Sitting at the wheel was 1969 graduate Dave Leedy, dressed in a blue spandex jumpsuit, red knee-high boots with matching briefs, a wide yellow belt and a short
red cape. “You decided to drive today, huh?” the officer joked, asking him to step out of the car parked along northbound I-75. Although Leedy got a dose of humility, he didn’t get a ticket.

Leedy is used to garnering giggles for his colorful costume, but only when he’s on the job. As a motivational speaker, he uses it to illustrate a point: Everyone can be a superhero.

Leedy taught in the Dayton public school system for 30 years before joining the National Speakers Association in 1993 and transitioning to full-time speaking.

Today he travels the country, speaking anywhere from 50-100 times a year to groups upward of 10,000. His clients include schools, hospitals, government agencies and companies such as Xerox, IBM and AT&T. He often talks about motivation, enthusiasm and self esteem, and tries to bring a humorous approach to what people face on a day-to-day basis. “What I do is take what you do and put it into what I do,” he says. “The biggest compliment was, ‘You knew who we were. It wasn’t just a canned speech.’ ”

Leedy usually enters the stage wearing a suit and tie, and begins his theory on superheroes. Then, he turns his back to remove the outer layer of clothing, revealing a full-blown superhero suit. Leedy attributes the day he dodged the speeding ticket to being unprepared. “I had changed my clothes in the restroom at a rest stop,” he says. “I was running a little late. I figured I could pick up 10 minutes with nobody there … I figured no one would know.”

Xavier Magazine

Staying on His Toes

While most students spent the weeks before exams at the library, Calvin Thomas was in Detroit’s Fox Theatre performing the Christmas favorite “The Nutcracker” twice a day. The freshman began dancing at 7 years old in his native Maysville, Ky. 

“I actually didn’t like ballet in the beginning, but I decided to take a ballet class because it makes you stronger in other things, like gymnastics and other dance forms,” he says. “So I just decided to try it, didn’t really like it and just stuck it out, and I developed a love for it after that.”

At age 14, Thomas enrolled in the five-week summer program at the Otto M. Budig Academy of Cincinnati Ballet. “We just trained all day in different dance forms with the base being ballet,” he says.

Thomas liked it so much that in the fall he started to commute the hour and 15 minutes from Maysville three or four days a week after school. Eventually, he started coming every day, and often wouldn’t get home until 11:00 p.m. Thomas also supplemented his dance training in the Boston Ballet’s summer dance program and at the School of American Ballet in New York.

This past year, the Cincinnati Ballet offered him a paid entry-level position, which he balances with a full load of evening classes. He admits that he often catches up on homework at night, studies a lot when he’s on tour and e-mails papers to professors from the road.

“I applied to Xavier because I knew it was close to the Ballet, and I felt it was important to get started on education because a lot of people think that you either have to go to school or you have to be a ballet dancer, and I wanted to try both,” Thomas says. “I’m thankful for it now because I thought it was going to be hard—like I was going to be completely swamped and overwhelmed and stressed, but it’s actually not as bad as I thought it would be.”