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Sharkay Kletjian

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Sharkay (Gumushian) Kletjian was a famous entrepreneur. She was born in Istanbul and was only 3 months old when her parents fled the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, came to United States and settled in Somerville.

Sharkay's father, Sempad, was a tailor. Her mother, Vasganous (Torissian), was a housewife. Sharkay was the oldest of their four children. She was voted outstanding Latin student at Somerville High School and graduated in 1938 with a full scholarship to the former Burdett School of Business where she studied accounting and bookkeeping.

She graduated from Burdett in 1940 and that same year married Herbert Kletjian, whose family had also fled the Armenian genocide.

Kletjian had left school in the eighth grade to go to work and was a candy mixer at the Necco candy company in Cambridge, said their son, Robert T. of Andover.

"Dad decided with a friend to make extra money by washing windows and cleaning floors," he said. The two men worked together for a time and then Kletjian bought out his partner.

In the early days, UNICCO, founded in 1949 and the acronym for University Cleaning Company, was located in Central Square, Cambridge, with a very small staff. Robert recalled that his father would go out during the day dressed in a suit to recruit clients and then go out on cleaning jobs at night. Eventually, Mrs. Kletjian joined her husband in the office to do the bookkeeping.

The couple's three sons, later executives of the company, started out scrubbing floors and doing other janitorial services.

"My father worked us harder and paid us less than other employees," Robert said, "and my mother fully endorsed what he did."

When Mr. Kletjian died in 1969 at the age of 48, Mrs. Kletjian and her sons took charge.

"She was instrumental in growing the company into what it has become," Robert said. "She ran all the backroom operations and was treasurer through the mid-1990s."

On its website, UNICCO, now based in the Auburndale village of Newton, describes itself as "one of North America's largest facilities outsourcing companies with over $700 million in annual sales, with 1,000 customers and 19,000 employees." The company has about 20 field offices around the country and in Canada, Robert said.

As the daughter of immigrants, Sharkay Kletjian worked hard to fulfill her own American dream and helped hundreds of other immigrants to achieve theirs.

"Mrs. K set an example with her own hard work," said John Feitor of Medford, a native of Portugal who started out as a cleaner with Mrs. Kletjian's UNICCO janitorial and maintenance service company and retired as its executive senior vice president. "She was my anchor, my motivator."

Many immigrants, unable to speak English when they arrived, were given their first job at UNICCO and some rose to supervisory positions. John Correia of Arlington was one of them. He started out doing janitorial work and now heads UNICCO's New England Division.

"When I arrived from Brazil, UNICCO was my first job in 1980," Correia said. "Mrs. K related to immigrants well and understood the challenge of uprooting that we faced. She took a motherly interest in us. She had the rule: Everyone had to speak English in front of her. If we made a mistake, she corrected us, but always with a smile and in a friendly way."

Feitor recalled arriving in the United States in 1970 without work or a word of English.

"She always taught me to say, 'Yes, I can' when I thought I couldn't," Feitor said. "She talked to me like I was her own son. She screamed at me like I was one of them. When I came to this country I had dreams I did not think I could fulfill. I saw a star very far away. It was success. Mrs. K helped me reach that star."

Sharkay Kletjian died at Massachusetts General Hospital of kidney failure. She was 84 and lived in North Falmouth and Rancho Mirage, Calif. Funeral services were held at Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in Cambridge. She was burried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.

Sharkay Kletjian left sons, Robert T. of Andover, Steven C. of Osterville, and Richard J. of Hingham; a daughter, Dianne of Hamilton; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.