Legendary Public Servant Sam Massell Retires as President of Buckhead Coalition

Buckhead has grown dramatically since Sam Massell first took up residence in the community in 1952. That’s when he rented an apartment at the corner of Lindbergh Drive and Adina Drive, about a block from Piedmont Road. It was a brand-new building — “first-class quality space in Buckhead,” as he describes it. His rent was $50 per month. That was long before the businessman would become Atlanta’s 53rd mayor, serving from 1970 to 1974.

“Some years later, as the former mayor of Atlanta, I was invited to cut a ribbon on some new townhouses that were opening on the same property for about half a million dollars each,” he recalls. “Time marches on.”

And Massell is moving on as well. The 92-year-old, known as the unofficial mayor of Buckhead, announced Wednesday he is retiring from his position as president of the Buckhead Coalition. He broke the news during the organization’s annual meeting at 103 West, a private dining restaurant. Massell is the only president the organization has ever had. Launched in 1988, the Buckhead Coalition is made up of 100 business and civic leaders that aim to preserve the quality of life in Buckhead, a commercial and residential district in the northern part of Atlanta. Approximately 90,000 residents live in the district.

“I don’t want this to sound like I’m going away because I’m not, except to say that today after 32 and a half years, I am announcing that I’ve decided to retire.”

Massell, who was born in Atlanta and will turn 93 in August, acknowledged that there were several members of the media present for the luncheon who might wonder why he’s stepping down from his post now. “I have no earthly idea why,” Massell said, but then he just as quickly hinted his wife, Sandra, may have had something to do with his decision. “Let’s give her a round of applause.”

The ingredients to building a wonderful community are tried and true, said Massell. “It takes a formula of business leadership and journalists and elected officials. You put those three together and you can build anything. That’s what we’ve enjoyed and appreciated over the years. You are the ones that have made Buckhead wonderful and successful, and it continues to be that way.”

Sam Massell and his wife, Sandra, known as the First Lady of Buckhead, are pictured during the 2020 Buckhead Coalition Annual Luncheon on Wednesday.

As a personal touch at Massell’s request, the Buckhead Coalition handed each attendee a mezuzah, a piece of parchment called a klaf contained in a decorative case and inscribed with specific Hebrew verses from the Torah. “For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s a little container that we imported from Israel. Inside it is a written prayer that tries to express our love for you, our history with you, our future that lies ahead. Many Jewish people have these on the entrance door to their homes. But you don’t have to be Jewish to do it. I invite you to take it home and check it from time to time. It will relate you back to us today.”

Long list of accomplishments

Joe Evans, chairman of the Buckhead Coalition and vice chairman of Cadence Bancorp, highlighted some of Massell’s accomplishments during his reign. Evans also mixed in a touch of humor. “Well, Sam, I have a sense of what the Israelites must have felt when Moses stepped down.”

Evans’ first exposure to Massell came about a half century ago when he was a student at Georgia Tech. “Some of you remember the Top 40 (radio) station of the day was WQXI, 790 on your AM dial, and Skinny Bobby Harper was the DJ. And I was a fan. I turned on the radio one morning expecting to hear Skinny Bobby Harper, and I heard a voice say, ‘This is Fat Sam substituting for Skinny Bobby.’ And I wondered: ‘Who is this guy?’ It was none other than newly elected Mayor Sam Massell.”

Over the past half century, Atlanta and Buckhead have experienced tremendous growth and development and made some strides toward inclusion that seemed unthinkable at the time, explained Evans. “For me, it’s impossible to think back on that half century and the good things that have happened in this community and not just stand in awe of Sam Massell.

After serving eight years as president of Atlanta’s Board of Aldermen (now known as Atlanta City Council), Massell was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1969. He succeeded Ivan Allen Jr., and in doing so became Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor.

A number of administrative decisions Massell made at the time in the name of inclusion might be taken for granted today, emphasized Evans. For example, Massell appointed the first woman to city council, and he was the first to appoint several African-Americans to department head positions.

In 1970, it was Massell who played a pivotal role in getting Atlanta to grant Muhammad Ali a boxing license when 50 other cities had already declined to do so. In 1967, Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army for religious reasons. He was sentenced to five years in prison but was free on bail while he appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ali was also stripped of his heavyweight title. His victory over Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in October 1970 was a media spectacle and resurrected his boxing career, and in 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction.

Under Massell’s mayoral leadership, city elections became non-partisan and MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) was established. During his tenure, the city developed the Omni Coliseum, an indoor arena that opened in 1972, and established Central City Park (known today as Woodruff Park). He even served for a time as president of the 15,000-member National League of Cities.

In 1988, Massell became the president of the Buckhead Coalition. He was a driving force in the coalition that convinced the Atlanta City Council to approve construction of Ga. Highway 400. Later on, he pushed for the connecting ramp that was eventually built between Ga. 400 and Interstate 85.

Massell also spearheaded the creation of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, which has raised over $59 million in “self-imposed taxes” for the development of the Buckhead community, according to Evans.

But his commitment wasn’t just to the big projects, added Evans. “Sam never forgot the importance of seeing that the potholes got filled and the dead trees got removed before they fell on somebody. The list could go on.”

‘Impeccable decency’

Peter Berg, senior rabbi with The Temple, Atlanta’s first and largest synagogue, provided the benediction. “It’s truly an honor to be here with each of you. I don’t think anybody for a moment ever thought they would hear the words Sam Massell and retirement in the same sentence.”

Peter Berg, senior rabbi with The Temple, provides the benediction during Wednesday’s luncheon at 103 West.

For the past several decades Massell has led Atlantans through generational shifts and newly defined expectations, the rabbi pointed out. “I, for one, will always be proud to call him my mayor, my champion of Buckhead and my friend. He is a leader of impeccable decency, of sensitivity and of clear-sighted sagacity.”

Berg pointed out that the prayer contained in the mezuzah given to each attendee of the luncheon was from The Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 6:4-9. “It reminds us of our covenant with God and it reminds us to live our lives with morality and with justice. For a household is created by the people who live in it, by the way they act and by the good deeds that they do. So wherever we see this mezuzah, I would like to suggest today that we will also be reminded, Sam, of your nobility of spirit, of your ability to get more done in a day than all of the rest of us in this room combined and of your genuine love for all of God’s children.”

Neither the effective date of Massell’s retirement nor the name of his replacement has been announced yet. That will be addressed by the succession committee.

— Matt Valley

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