Sam Massell, former mayor and Buckhead champion, remembered as visionary leader

Sam Massell, the former Atlanta mayor who became a champion of his adopted neighborhood of Buckhead, is being remembered as a transformative and visionary leader following his death at age 94.

Massell, who died March 13, was a longtime resident of Peachtree Heights West. He was well-known for serving as mayor in 1970-74 and his hand in establishing MARTA. Locally he was highly influential in the business and philanthropic communities as a founder of the Buckhead Community Improvement District and original president of the Buckhead Coalition.

“Sam’s impact on our city was immeasurable,” said Mayor Andre Dickens in a written statement. “His time as mayor made history in so many ways.”

“His leadership in the city of Atlanta was transformative,” said Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple, the Midtown synagogue where Massell was a member of the congregation and where his memorial service is scheduled for March 16.

“Sam had greatness,” said Charles McNair, the novelist and journalist who wrote “Play It Again, Sam,” a 2017 biography of Massell.

“Sam’s impact on our city was immeasurable. His time as mayor made history in so many ways.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens

Massell grew up in Druid Hills and had entrepreneurial careers in real estate and as a travel agent. He entered politics in the 1960s, serving as president of the Atlanta City Council (then the Board of Alderman). He then became Atlanta’s first, and still only, Jewish mayor, and worked to diversify City government. He lost a re-election bid to Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson.

In 1988, Massell became the founding president of the Coalition, an invitation-only group of prominent civic and business leaders. He led the nonprofit organization in promoting various efforts related to public safety and charitable support. He also played a key role in the controversial extension of the Ga. 400 highway and related MARTA Red Line train system through Buckhead.

Under his leadership the Coalition also spun off the CID, a group of commercial property owners in the central business district who tax themselves to fund improvements to public safety, transportation and the streetscape. In later years, he proposed a program to address affordability of retail space for small businesses.

Massell displays one of the trauma-injury emergency kits the Buckhead Coalition donated in 2015 to the Atlanta Police Department in one of many such efforts by the nonprofit under his leadership. Credit: File Photo

Massell continued citywide service, including on the organizing committee for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Andrew Young, the Civil Rights leader who served as mayor at that time, called Massell a “man and a half” in the introduction to “Play It Again, Sam,” adding, “The success of Buckhead that Sam has driven is a true benefit to the rest of us, no matter where in Atlanta we live.”

Locally, Massell became Buckhead’s biggest booster. As an informal economic development agency for the neighborhood, his Coalition published the “Buckhead Guidebook,” an annual magazine packed with minute details, from demographics to the location of public art. More whimsically, he oversaw the creation of a Buckhead flag and got a Georgia General Assembly passed giving the neighborhood unofficially official boundaries.

One of the glass sculptures of a handshake that Massell gave out at the 2018 Buckhead Coalition annual luncheon as a plea for unity. Credit: John Ruch

“Probably more than anything else, the Buckhead Coalition is credited with branding Buckhead,” Massell told Buckhead.com in a 2015 interview. “That has paid off economically, as a good brand affects everything. I imagine the future of Buckhead to be more of the same, protecting and preserving what we have.”

Massell became known as the unofficial “Mayor of Buckhead” — emphasis on “unofficial.” While a booster, Massell long cautioned against rumblings of Buckhead leaving Atlanta to become its own city, something he said would be disastrous and a violation of civic spirit. After the divisive 2017 mayoral election, where Keisha Lance Bottoms narrowly beat local resident Mary Norwood, Massell held unity events and, at the Coalition’s annual luncheon, handed out glass sculptures of a handshake bearing the phrase “Atlanta Together.”

When an unprecedentedly serious cityhood effort emerged in 2020, Massell was a main critic. In his final interview with this reporter late last year, he predicted an end to the cityhood effort but also a lingering battle. “I think its chances are nil, but still, you can’t take it for granted and we have to continue to oppose it and find the power that makes sense and represents a cross-section of Atlanta, because it affects all of Atlanta,” he said. “… The bad part is, it’s going to drag out for a couple of years.”

In person, Massell was a witty and charming raconteur who placed great emphasis on good manners — though he was a master of “bless your heart”-ing for those who crossed him or the neighborhood. As a Democratic former mayor shepherding a largely Republican group of leaders in 1980s Buckhead in the Coalition’s early days, Massell needed a great deal of charisma and had it a aplenty.

Massell signs copies of his biography, “Play It Again, Sam,” at a 2019 Buckhead Business Association event. Credit: File Photo

Massell also was adept at charming the press, as we at Buckhead.com saw first-hand, whether it was hosting our publisher for a sit-down in his trophy-filled office or answering a question about his background in amateur stage magic by making a Buckhead Coalition coin disappear — and reappear as a souvenir. More significantly, Massell saw the press as a vital community asset and valued its scrutiny. In recent years he touted a “Buckhead Triangle of Success” — an interrelationship between local business, local nonprofit organizations, and local media.

Massell retired from the Coalition in mid-2020 to enjoy life with his wife Sandra Gordy. The COVID-19 pandemic ended their plans to travel on cruises, but a late-afternoon cocktail hour remained a sacrosanct tradition as they enjoyed each other’s company.

Massell was preceded in death by his former wife Doris. Survivors include his three children, Cindy, Steve and Melanie.

Memories of Sam Massell

The following are memories and praises from various prominent acquaintances of Massell. This list will be updated as more come in.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens

I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Mayor, and my friend, Sam Massell. Sam’s impact on our city was immeasurable. His time as mayor made history in so many ways. He was Atlanta’s first and only Jewish mayor; he laid the groundwork for MARTA — which connected neighborhoods and residents across our city; and he paved the way for better representation of women and minority participation in City government. Sam was one of the wittiest people I knew. He understood the importance of collaboration and inclusion. I call it drawing circles, but Sam always said that we can get more done through a conference call than through confrontation. That is why I asked him to join our transition team. Rest well, my friend. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who loved him.

Rabbi Peter Berg, The Temple

Sam was an extraordinary friend and leader. He was a mentor to me in so many ways.  His leadership in the city of Atlanta was transformative. Sam often reached out to me to share with me how proud he was of our Temple and all that we do for the community. I have always appreciated the time he took to share these special thoughts with me.

In many ways, Sam was the bridge in leadership between mostly white-led administrations to the distinguished Black mayors who have served for many years now. Sam appointed many prominent women and African American Atlantans within his administration and was very proud of all he was able to accomplish.

Sam was proud of his Jewish heritage and that he served as the first minority mayor in Atlanta.

I will miss him dearly.  He is irreplaceable!

Buckhead Coalition

With the passing of Mayor Sam Massell, Atlanta and the Buckhead community have lost an iconic leader and tireless advocate. Sam lived a life that will have lasting impact. Much will be said and written about the impact that Sam had on Atlanta as president of Atlanta’s Board of Aldermen and subsequently as Atlanta’s mayor, but the position he held longest, from 1988 until his retirement in 2020, was president of the Buckhead Coalition. Long after most people retire, Sam came to his office every day into his 90s. He worked hard to improve the quality of life for our community, while helping to bring economic investment and jobs to Buckhead. We congratulate Sam on a life well-lived.

Atlanta City Councilmember Mary Norwood

Atlanta has lost a great civic leader in the passing of Mayor Sam Massell. His service both to the City of Atlanta as our mayor and as the president of the Buckhead Coalition made him a remarkable public servant for decades. His love for the entire city as well as his beloved Buckhead was extraordinary and we will all miss his leadership and remember him fondly. His deft handling of meetings with a strict adherence to the agenda and the timeline was legendary and his dedication throughout his entire career unparalleled.

Atlanta City Council

A visionary leader for our city, the Council joins the community in mourning the loss of former Mayor Sam Massell. Among his many achievements, he made MARTA what it is today and improved our transit system to attract jobs, investment and generate economic development. A catalyst for change, he also pioneered minority opportunities in Atlanta’s government. He will be deeply missed and his passion for civic service and making a difference in our city will be forever remembered.

Former state Rep. Edward Lindsey

During my decade representing Buckhead in the General Assembly, Sam Massell’s phone message was always at the top of my return call list. His wise counsel on crime, transportation, education reform, economic development, and local government transparency were invaluable.  He will be missed by everyone concerned with the future of Buckhead and Atlanta.

Anna Roach, executive director, Atlanta Regional Commission

Mayor Massell was a visionary leader who shaped the destiny of the city he loved and that of the entire Atlanta region. He understood the importance of looking beyond the borders of his own jurisdiction to tackle big issues from a wider, regional lens, such as his critical support of regional mass transit that helped bring MARTA to life. We are indebted to his life of service and sustained passion for the Atlanta region. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.

Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond

I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Mayor Sam Massell. He was well-known and an outstanding civic leader, businessman, trailblazer and visionary. He was a close mentor and dear friend. The former mayor was the compass and conscience of those both aspiring to and practicing public service. He was the wise sage who mentored and taught so many who sought to seek out good in the way he had done. I consider myself very fortunate to have been one of those who benefited from his love, time and concern.

We exist today in an Atlanta, partially inspired by his great vision of what a “city on a hill” should be. He never stopped caring, never stopped building, and he never stopped serving the people and city that he loved so much. Whether it is the appointments of minorities and women in City government, the creation of great arenas for people to gather for entertainment and sports, or the minting of great communities and neighborhoods, we need only to look around to see his intelligible impression upon the edifice known as Atlanta. I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Sandra, his family, friends and supporters. Atlanta should be grateful for the life, the work and the man — Sam Massell.

For those of us who will surely miss him, we need only to look to his accomplishments that remain. When looking for his soul, they will find it with the heroes of old, cast among the stars.

Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman

Former Mayor Sam Massell was a trailblazer and a man who never stopped working to make Atlanta better and never lost hope that it could be

Rest in Power…

Charles McNair, biographer

Sam got gleeful during one of our one-hour interviews – we did two a week for 20 weeks as research for “Play It Again, Sam” – over the memory of a billy goat given to his dad, Sam Sr., as payment for a legal fee. The care and feeding of the ornery thing fell to Sam.

The goat slipped its tether, ‘course, and made its way the neighbor’s greenhouse. It devoured all of Mr. Held’s prize orchids.

Sam stopped the interview with an aside:

“A goat that eats orchids,” he said, “is a first-class goat.”

He cackled with laughter, and his delight got me tickled too. We laughed for a full minute.

One other [story], this showing Sam’s adherence to his Jewish faith. Sam chortled over this one, pausing a comedic beat after his punch line. (Pun intended.) The memory:

Mr. Meld, a neighbor, worked in the insurance business, but he did a little business on the side for Jesus. He sometimes invited Buddy [Massell’s childhood nickname] over for a meeting of “Friendly Indians.” The Friendly Indians – the four rough Meld Brothers and Buddy – assembled balsa wood airplanes, enjoyed cookies and Kool-Aid … and listened to Mr. Meld “promote good clean Christian living,” as Sam described it.

Of course, Mr. Meld meant to save Buddy’s soul … for one pure and simple reason.

Buddy Massell was a Jew.

“I always ate the cookies,” Sam confessed. “But I never drank the Kool-Aid.”

Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

Mayor Massell was a kind and dedicated man who loved our city deeply. I am grateful for his years of service and generosity. My condolences to his family.

Former Mayor Kasim Reed

Our city has suffered a great loss today. Mayor Sam Massell broke barriers as our city’s first Jewish Mayor and long after his term of service was over, he never stopped loving and giving to Atlanta. Sam Massell was my friend. I will miss him. May God’s comfort grace his family.

Atlanta City Councilmember Andrea L. Boone

Today, with the passing of former Mayor Sam Massell, Atlanta must reflect on the legacy and service he leaves behind. He has been a constant champion for our great city and those of us who call it home. During his tenure as mayor of Atlanta, Mr. Massell was challenged to make hard decisions that would impact generations to come. He never wavered from a position of equity and fair treatment for all. In the mid-1970s, he hired the late Fulton County Commissioner Emma I. Darnell, my mentor, as the first Black female to lead a department in the City of Atlanta. Sam Massell hired her to manage contracts at all levels. For this, the people of Atlanta were grateful. Mayor Massell was a man of action and respected the rights of people all across this city. I am honored to have known him. Atlanta will continue to stand on his legacy. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.