Former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell dies at 94 – WSB-TV Channel 2

ATLANTA — Former Atlanta mayor Samual Massell Jr. has died at 94.

Family members said he died of natural causes Sunday morning.

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Massell served as Atlanta’s 53rd mayor from 1970 to 1974. He was the city’s first and only Jewish mayor and the most recent non-black mayor of the city.

Massell most recently managed the nonprofit civic organization that he founded, the Buckhead Coalition.


Mayor Andre Dickens issued a statement on Massell’s death, writing:

“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.”

As Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor, Massell changed the tide of Atlanta and even impacted its skyline through his decades in real estate.

Massell was a life-long Atlantan. He was born Aug. 26, 1927, at Piedmont Hospital.

He would grow up in an apartment building built by his own family — The Massellton Apartments — off of Police de Leon Avenue.

Massell’s brothers and uncles had achieved prominence in real estate ahead of the Great Depression and built the apartment complex, which still stands today.

Massell’s father ended up losing everything in the stock market crash of 1929 and ended up turning to law, running a general law practice.

The young Sam Massell, who went by the nickname Buddy in his youth, got his first taste of politic in high school, where he served on the Druid Hills High School student council.

After classes, Buddy sold flower and vegetable seeds door to door. He distributed circulars for the man who owned a movie theater in Emory Village.

He caddied at Druid Hills Golf Club. He delivered Grit, a newspaper that gave many youngsters a first taste of salesmanship, and he threw The Georgian, a daily city paper.

In the summer of 1944, two weeks after high school graduation, Massell started classes at the University of Georgia.

While there, Massell would end up becoming president of the Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity. Before he could graduate from UGA, Uncle Sam came calling and Massell was drafted into the Air Force toward the end of World War II.

Massell went through basic training, but peace broke out before he was mobilized. He returned to civilian life to earn three degrees from Georgia State University in science, salesmanship and real estate.

“I’m probably the only student ever at Georgia State to wear three caps and gowns,” Massell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview in September 2017.

Soon after graduating, Massell would meet his first wife.

It was Valentine’s Day 1950 and Massell was at Club 26, a supper club on Pine Street, when a petite redhead named Doris Mae Middlebrooks caught Sam’s eye and then stole his heart.

Massell’s mother didn’t initially approve of his choice of a Baptist girl from Hogansville, and Middlebrooks had a boyfriend in the Navy when they met. But they eventually overcame those obstacles and married in October 1952.

Their marriage would last 63 years, until Doris Massell’s death from Alzheimer’s in August 2015.

Sam Massell ended up following in his family’s tradition and joined Allan-Grayson Realty, a prominent Atlanta firm.

He was a natural. Massell became a founding member of the Million Dollar Club, and he rose to company vice president in 1955. By age 35, he was independently wealthy.

One of the biggest things that made Massell standout among the rest was the development of entire commercial buildings designed exclusively for various medical care specialty practices.

No one had done that in recent history, and parents of baby boomers flocked to get convenient treatment at these health hubs.

Massell put medical centers in multiple cities and made a name for himself. Despite his success, he began to wonder what more he might achieve.

“Somewhere in my 20s, my values changed,” he said. “I wanted to make a contribution. I was becoming much more goal-oriented about civic and social contributions than advancements in commerce or industry.”

Before he knew it, Massell would find himself moving into the political realm of Atlanta.

Massell used some of his early real estate income to buy a little romantic hideaway for Doris and himself in Mountain Park — in a little incorporated community in the woods north of Atlanta.

The three-room, no-kitchen, no-bath house was surrounded by some 200 neighboring getaway cabins sprinkled through the forests of north Fulton and Cherokee counties.

Once Massell got the house in livable shape, she started to drop in on Mountain Park City Council meetings.

“I had no political purpose at all,” he insisted. “I owned property in Mountain Park and was just interested in my neighbors.”

Two Mountain Park city elders took a shine to the young Massell. Though Massell had only owned property a few months, they asked him to run for a seat in an upcoming City Council election.

Eight candidates jousted for five Mountain Park City Council spots. On election night, Massell finished sixth.

Shortly after the election, one of the council members retired, sold his property, and moved to Florida.

Massell would end up filling the empty spot.

He would serve in politics for the next 22 years.

In 1961, Lee Evans, head of the Atlanta Board of Aldermen (now the Atlanta City Council) took a stance on a political issue that appeared racially unprogressive. A vice president at Gulf Oil named Everett Millican approached Sam about running against Evans.

Massell consulted several key people first, including his father’s friend A.T. Walden, a prominent black attorney and president of the Atlanta Negro Voters League. Walden also happened to be one of two African American members on the Democratic Executive Committee.

Walden gave Massell his support.

“That was all I needed to hear,” Massell said. “The next day I went down to register to run for president of the Board of Aldermen.”

He won the 1961 citywide election, becoming in effect vice mayor. Four years later he won a second term, without a runoff, against five candidates.

In 1969, Massell decided to run for mayor of Atlanta. His opponent was Republican Rodney Cook, who had the support of white voters, the business community and outgoing Mayor Ivan Allen Jr.

Polling just 10 percent of the white vote but a whopping 90 percent of black votes, Massell won the election.

With that election, Massell made history. A Jew had been elected mayor of the flagship city of the New South, a first in Atlanta and a rarity in national politics at the time.

Among Massell’s greatest accomplishments while mayor of Atlanta was the role he played in helping establish the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA.

Following Atlanta tradition, Massell focused his energy and vision on the city’s historic source of growth — transportation. More than any other individual, he championed the bus routes and rail lines of MARTA, structuring and presiding over efforts that brought the network to reality.

“If Atlanta did not have Sam Massell, it would not have MARTA,” former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. “Without MARTA, we would likely not have the major hotels we have, with 42 million guests each year. We would not have the hotel and convention industry we have, a $10 billion annual business that supports 220,000 employees.”

As mayor, Massell catalyzed Atlanta’s convention and tourism industry, and oversaw the development of Omni Coliseum (now the site of Philips Arena), the city’s first indoor arena and a magnet for the downtown area.

Massell also created a number of parks, public housing facilities, library branches and other city improvements — without one penny in tax increases.

He played a big role in Atlanta’s peaceful transition from city government under white leadership to city government under black leadership.

He appointed the first African Americans to department-head positions, and the first woman to the Atlanta City Council, filling an open seat.

When Massell left office, blacks held more than 40 percent of city government positions, double the number in service when he became mayor. Every minority position he appointed in higher city management marked a first.

“Sam Massell came at a very delicate period in the history of Atlanta,” said former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes. “With a cool head and steady hand, he guided us all through a very turbulent time.”

Despite his success, Massell lost his bid for a second term to Atlanta’s first African American mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1973.

It was a moment of social demarcation so historical and revolutionary in the South’s first city that it made international headlines.

The 1973 election defeat left Massell something of a forgotten man, his significant achievements overlooked or even forgotten in the swirl of change that followed the end of his elected political career.

For more than three three decades, Massell led the Buckhead Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to orderly growth and quality-of-life issues in a section of the city that accounts for an outsized percentage of Atlanta’s ad-valorem tax revenue.

During his 30 years helming the coalition, Massell has steered Buckhead on a steady course toward prosperity.

He brought Buckhead through thorny politics to get the Georgia 400 connector built, connecting Buckhead to north Georgia. He helped Buckhead overcome an image problem caused by late-night clubs and spotty policing from the City of Atlanta during the late 1990s.

Massell also led Buckhead through the Great Recession, when a multi-block construction project conspicuously stalled on Peachtree Road. The recovery earned him widespread praise. In all, Massell’s leadership has made Buckhead an internationally known brand name, like Rodeo Drive, synonymous with luxury lifestyles and a climbing skyline.

Late in life, Massell took a new bride, Sandra Gordy, a protégé who served as a CEO at one of the family businesses.

Through his final days, Massell counseled politicians, wrangled business deals, cut ribbons and flew the Buckhead flag around the clock.

Information for this article is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.






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