Cliff HakimCliff Hakim

Cliff Hakim motions to a forklift driver who is angling a piece of pink granite onto two wide uprights already in the ground. It is a delicate operation and takes some gentle coaching from Hakim as well as careful maneuvers from the driver. Slowly, the granite is set in place. The result is a memorial stone bench that is as much sculpture as it is a place to rest.

Among our many-faceted residents

Hakim, 69, has been guiding people throughout his career, working first with those having learning disabilities and later with those struggling to find their vocation. Now he is an artisan making objects out of stone, sometimes as a memorial, such as the bench installed on the Minuteman Bikeway to remember Cary Coovert, who died in an accident there in 2019. What connects these seemingly disparate careers is Hakim’s willingness to listen and his belief that we all have a story to tell.

“I built my career,” says the Arlington resident, “on listening to people's stories, whether they were in the form of counseling and consulting about their career or about what kind of memorial they wanted to represent their loved one. It boils down to listening and interpreting their stories.”

'People need to take charge'

As a special-education teacher, Hakim lived and worked in Oakland, Calif., where he helped Vietnam veterans and people with learning disabilities, aiming to get them back into the workforce. Raised in Shrewsbury, he eventually decided he wanted to come back to Massachusetts and realized he could continue to help people find work and became a consultant and writer in the world of business. He advised and counseled people searching for jobs, ultimately coming to the conclusion that people need to take charge of their work life in ways they may not have realized.

“I really believed, and this was unpopular at the time, that you would lose your job no matter what, either because companies were getting rid of people or because you were getting tired of your work and had to remake yourself,” he said. 

His work and thinking led him to write several books about careers and unemployment. His first, in 1995, was When You Lose Your Job: Laid off, Fired, Early Retired, Relocated, Demoted, Unchallenged.  Later, he wrote, We Are All Self-Employed.

He believes that whether you work for yourself or for someone else, you are your own boss. In an article he wrote for the First Parish of Arlington, Unitarian Universalist, newsletter, he described watching a young man at a supermarket making a display of yogurt, carefully placing each container so that the label was facing front, creating an orderly and eye-catching display.

To Hakim, the man brought meaning to his job by taking responsibility for his work. He had, wrote Hakim, “the attributes of what I call a ‘self-employed attitude.’” To Hakim, this meant that in a sense he was running his own business within a business. “We are,” said Hakim, “responsible for our own employment and are, in a sense, self-employed.”

'I was always an artisan'  

Hakim himself continues to alter his career, taking the responsibility to find what he feels is meaningful and useful. “I was always an artisan,” he said. “I was always someone who asked creative questions, always someone who cared about people's spirits and their souls. I loved stone all my life and really wanted to make the transition to working more with material objects. One day I asked myself, ‘What do I really love in that world,' and it was stone.”

He grew up in an artistic family: His mother was a part-time sculptor, painter and writer, and his father was a wood craftsman. “I always had a creative streak in me, and it wasn’t until I got older that I summoned the courage to harness the frustrated part of me, which was to express myself in the arts.”

Hakim began building benches and tables in his backyards. He built a stone wall out of reclaimed granite from the foundation of a farmhouse. He began selling artifacts, and then people asked him whether he could fashion a memorial out of stone that was more creative than celebratory.

Again, he began listening to stories, this time about the loved ones who were lost: “I interpreted their lives in stone in a simple way; it became clear to me that’s what people really wanted.”

Started publishing company  

Now he has a new venture. He has started his own publishing company, WIMS (Walk In My Shoes), and its first book will be one he is writing and illustrating. The book, he says, focuses on kindness and shows a path to empathy and compassion. He interviewed 35 people and in his book tells how they cared for others and how others cared for them.

Among the stories he tells is that of the son of an Israeli general whose niece was killed by Palestinians but who became an activist supporting Palestinians after listening and understanding their plight. Another is of a young man who lost his mother to cancer and was supported by others, teaching him to reach out to others in turn.

“The notion of the book is that by being kind to one another, we can change the planet. Empathy is understanding of another and compassion is helping another.”

And he still listens to stories. When he was asked to design the stone bench on the Minuteman Bikeway, it was important to him to find out about the person who was being remembered. Again, he listened to stories. The result, both a bench and a piece of sculpture, represents a meaningful life well lived.

Memorial bench along Minuteman Bikeway to Cary Coovert. Robin Lord photo

Sept. 9, 2020: Local bicyclist honored with Minuteman Bikeway memorial


This news feature was published Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. The writer is Marjorie Howard, YourArlington co-publisher.