Sam Massell took a passion for progress and three pieces of paper from Georgia State and helped modernize the city
Does anyone love Atlanta more than Sam Massell? Does any other human being draw breath today who has worked harder, longer and more productively than Massell, ex-mayor and an icon of civic involvement, at transforming Atlanta into the ninth-largest U.S. metro area? Current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed gives fulsome credit to the 86-year-old Georgia State graduate.
“Sam Massell has an authentic passion for the city of Atlanta,” says Reed. “He’s worked unceasingly over his public career for this city, and he’s constantly been one of our champions.”
Massell throws a long shadow for a man of small stature (five-foot something). He most notably served 22 years in politics — eight (1962-’69) as president of the city’s Board of Aldermen (the old name for the City Council), then four as Atlanta mayor (1970-’74). His decades in elected office came as Atlanta, capital city of a Deep South state, evolved racially, economically and geographically from Anytown USA into one of the world’s important cities.
As an overachiever’s overachiever, Massell made his single mayoral term remarkable for its accomplishments. His administration appointed the first African-Americans to offices of influence, including the first woman on Atlanta’s city council. Massell catalyzed Atlanta’s nascent convention and tourism industry; oversaw the development of Omni Coliseum (now the site of Philips Arena), the city’s first indoor arena and a magnet for downtown; and created Woodruff Park, near Georgia State’s campus.
Most important, Massell followed Atlanta tradition by focusing energy and vision on the historic source of Atlanta’s growth — transportation.
More than any other individual, Massell championed the rail lines of MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, presiding over efforts that brought the subway network to reality.
Mayor Reed calls MARTA Massell’s legacy. “If Atlanta did not have Sam Massell, it would not have MARTA,” Reed says. “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. All this business owes its strength to MARTA. Plus, MARTA was obviously a key to winning the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996, and the 1988 Democratic Convention. We owe having these watershed events in large part to Sam Massell’s leadership.”
Quite a nice compliment for a man who went to night school at Georgia State and graduated with … not one … not two … but three degrees.
A Man For Four Seasons
Politics proved to be only one of the roles Massell performed on the stage of his native city.
Prior to political office, Massell worked in real estate development for 20 years. He then got elected, in 1950, as a councilman for the city of Mountain Park, and spent time on campaigns and in public service for the next 22 years.
He lost a bitter 1974 Atlanta mayoral race for reelection to Maynard Jackson. (Massell was the first Jewish mayor in Atlanta history, and the last white mayor.) For the next 13 years, he ran a travel agency (Your Travel Agent Sam Massell) with his wife, Doris Middlebrooks, a pretty redhead from Hogansville he met while he attended night school at Georgia State. (Doris studied at Georgia State though she didn’t graduate.)
Now, for the past 25 years, Massell has led the non-profit Buckhead Coalition, an organization dedicated to orderly growth and quality of life issues in a section of the city that accounts for a hefty percentage of Atlanta’s tax revenue.
In all, he can cite four distinct careers: Realtor. Elected official. Travel agent. Buckhead booster.
“You’d think I couldn’t hold a job,” he quips in an interview at the fifth-floor office at Tower Place that houses the coalition.
The truth? No job could hold Sam Massell.
A Knack For Invention
Massell enjoyed Tom Sawyer beginnings in upscale Druid Hills, where his family lived.
At age 9, in 1936 mid-Depression America, he started “a Co-Cola stand,” as he calls it, at the corner of Oakdale and North Decatur roads. He hired other kids to distribute publicity, rewarding them with discounts on cheese crackers and sandwiches he quickly added to the fare. “I had a big operation going,” he says, “until the police showed up and told me that I was running a business, and a business required a license.”
He found other goods to sell the neighbors: fireworks, then flower seeds, then newspapers. He started Massell Stamp Company, printing his own letterhead and running ads for collectable stamps.
“I got more mail than my father did,” he says. Massell absorbed his lawyer father’s work ethic “by osmosis,” as he puts it.
“He never directed me,” Massell says, “but seeing him conduct his life, hearing his suggestions, let me know that I had to work. So I always had some kind of business going.”
At 14, an event at Druid Hills High School changed Massell’s life and his opinion of himself. Still an introvert despite serial business ventures, Massell said yes when a friend, Charlie Goldstein, asked him to paint signs as a “campaign manager” for Goldstein’s student body president run. Even an introvert can paint signs, Massell thought. Goldstein won. He appointed Massell student body treasurer. Welcome to Politics 101.
“I actually did a good job,” Massell recalls proudly. “That had a tremendous positive impact on my self-esteem.”
Still, high school held hard lessons. Massell took up drumming, but he played too loudly. He got kicked out of band.
“The principal of Druid Hills told me,‘Buddy, you’re not going to amount to anything.’ I can still see his long finger,” Massell says. “And that may be the challenge I’ve been answering all my life.”
Big Man On Campus
In the summer of 1944, age 16 and close to draft age with a world war flaming across two oceans, Massell started classes at the University of Georgia.
“If you were male gender in those days, you could be a big man on campus,” he remembers. “It was heady wine for me. I ran from one thing to another.”
New signs of business savvy surfaced. He started Georgia Cracker, a literary magazine. No art-for-art’s sake here. Massell marketed copies to students and the community.
“I was making a pretty good living for a university student,” he says. But finally the candle burned out at both ends.
“At Athens,” Massell confesses, “I was simply overwhelmed by social activity.”
It was a risky time to leave a school, but Massell “transferred cold turkey,” as he puts it, to Emory University, just blocks from the old neighborhood in Druid Hills.
There, 1944-’45, he did nothing for two semesters, he says, but “go to class, study and go to bed.”
The heightened focus on books didn’t deter the draft board. His greeting arrived in 1946. He went to basic training in Texas, then wound up at Fort McPherson, of all places, in metro Atlanta. Thanks to his college experience, he qualified to serve as Administrative School instructor for the United States Army Air Force through 1947.
He returned to the University of Georgia for two years, 1947-’48, then started work in his dad’s law office. Two nights a week he attended Atlanta Law School, earning his degree in 1949. At the same time, he attended Georgia State three nights a week, aiming for more options than the law.
“By the time I got to Georgia State,” he says, “I had much more respect for college. It was a very important experience for me.”
Three Caps and Gowns
As Massell closed in on a bachelor of commercial science degree (B.C.S.) at Georgia State, he found he needed just one more course to also claim a two-year certificate in real estate, and with just a few more classes, another certificate in selling.
The school showed great flexibility, changing the catalog to support Massell and any other students who might wish to follow a similar career path.
“I have three caps and gowns,” Massell says. “I got the B.C.S. degree in 1951. I got the postgraduate certificate in selling in 1952. And I got the postgraduate diploma in real estate in 1953. “I’m probably the only student ever at Georgia State to wear three caps and gowns.”
His college wardrobe complete, Massell looked out over Baby Boom Atlanta. He saw a land of milk and honey.
Time to go to work.
A self-confessed workaholic, Massell made a habit of toiling seven days a week, months at a stretch. He still works that way today, more than six decades later.
The efforts paid off. His accomplishments have led to inductions into the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Hospitality Hall of Fame, the International Civil Rights King Center’s Walk of Fame, Georgia Trend Magazine’s Most Influential Georgians Hall of Fame, and honorary doctorate degrees from Oglethorpe University and John Marshall University.
He also treasures one more important Georgia State moment — his 2011 induction to J. Mack Robinson College’s Business Hall of Fame.
Building, Phoenix, Cruise Ship, Buck Head
Massell wore his work on his sleeve … literally.
As a realtor, he sported cuff links or lapel pins shaped like tiny buildings. As a politician, he wore a little phoenix, the bird that burns, then rises from the ashes. Atlanta adopted the phoenix as its symbol after the city rebuilt itself from ruin in the Civil War.
As a travel agent, Massell adorned himself with miniature cruise ships. Today, as head of the Buckhead Coalition, he wears a stag — a buck head. Get it?
He’s proud of all four seasons of his career. Realty came first. After a 1949-’51 stint as chief of publications for a trade magazine for the National Association of Women’s and Children’s Apparel Salesmen, Inc. (his Georgia Cracker lit mag experience came in handy), Massell hired on with Allan- Grayson Realty Company, old friends of the family.
“It was like you took a bird and threw it out to fly,” he says. His first year in commercial realty, he paid more in taxes than he made in annual salary at the magazine.
He quickly became a member of the Million Dollar Club, and rose to company vice president (1955-’69).
“Sam has a very agile mind and could have been a very successful real estate developer,” a former colleague, Charles Ackerman, told Points North Magazine. “Instead, he gave that up to spend his time and energy improving the Atlanta community.”
Obviously, Massell proved good at politics, too. He served energetically, positively. He won the mayor’s race in 1969 as a liberal Democrat; a David against the institutional Goliath of old Atlanta. The business community that many felt to be all-powerful, backed his opponent. Even the hugely influential outgoing mayor, Ivan Allen Jr., campaigned against him.
Still, Massell won. He served ably for four years. Then the same swirling tides of change that swept him into office swept him out. In a campaign that still haunts him, he lost City Hall to Maynard Jackson. Some blamed a campaign slogan perceived as racist — Atlanta Is Too Young To Die. The accusations bit, especially in light of Massell’s contributions to diversity before and after office.
“Atlanta was ready for a black mayor,” Massell says simply. “The time had come.”
The Dream Business
Worse things could have happened.
Ever resilient, Massell sat down with a spreadsheet of interests, passions, capabilities. He opened the Yellow Pages to find a career match.
He wanted a dream job now, so he decided to “sell dreams,” as he puts it. He and Doris started their travel business, sold tour packages the next 13 years, went on scores of cruises all over the world. He bought a vanity license plate bearing a single word: VOYAGE. Then he fixed a smaller plate just above it with another word: BON. Massell inhaled national and international experiences. He broadened, soaking up ideas from travelers and locations.
He was ready when Buckhead called. One of Atlanta’s big hitters, Charles Loudermilk, CEO of megabusiness Aaron Rents, got together with 12 business buddies to form the Buckhead Coalition. They needed a leader. Massell topped the list.
The founders wanted to give Massell a one-year contract at the fledgling organization; Massell wanted three. They settled on two.
Now he’s led the coalition for 25 years, still going strong.
It’s perfect work for Massell. The coalition comprises 100 top companies in Buckhead, Atlanta’s affluent northern suburb. Members pay $9,000 yearly in dues, and that funds his three-person staff in work that ranges from installing defibrillators in offices to resuscitating a multiblock heart-of-downtown Buckhead renovation stopped dead by the Great Recession.
Mobility seems part of Massell’s DNA. In the early 1990s, some 20 years after MARTA, Massell spearheaded coalition efforts in support of Georgia 400, the well traveled artery connecting Buckhead and the rest of Atlanta with populous northern counties of the metro area.
Massell shows up everywhere. One hour, he’s working out an innovative way to care for youth sports injuries at the Shepherd Spinal Center. The next hour, he’s directing with great pride the distribution of a new booklet, “Buckhead Coalition: A Sampling History of Achievements,” that catalogs the good works of the organization in its first 25 years. (He intends it to be less vanity project, more a template of creative ideas other cities can use to be more like Buckhead.)
His office — Massell calls it “Ego Alley” — overbrims with memorabilia and mementoes from a quarter century of coalition work. The faces of six U.S. Presidents peer down from the walls (who ARE those guys with Sam Massell?) and crystal or sculpted-metal awards and plaques gleam in every corner. A half-dozen shovels from ground-breaking ceremonies hang in another place. Commemorative baseball caps dangle like scalps.
Massell proudly displays among fine Buckhead art pieces a signed and framed cartoon from Hal Ketchum, creator of Dennis the Menace: Dennis asks Mr. Wilson, his older neighbor, “Why didn’t people build cities out in the country?” Another wall holds an oversized autographed poem, “Looking for the Buckhead Boys,” by the late James Dickey.
Stories Told and Untold
Now Massell is one of the Buckhead Boys.
He knows everyone, draws from a well of experience eight decades deep. He knows where bodies lie buried, understands how to read a face, interpret a handshake. His entire life has crescendoed into the work of making the Buckhead section of his Atlanta known and beloved by the world.
The man who championed metro mobility must sometimes use a cane to walk now, but the mind still moves nimbly, like light on water. He’s charming, engaging, impossible not to like.
Massell talks of a memoir, a book that will chronicle and pass on the lessons of a life in full. He talks with undisguised affection of his wife of 61 years, of their children. Steve heads Massell Commercial Real Estate. Cindy works as an interior designer and creates art. Melanie makes a living as a singer.
Massell converses with presidents and the press with equal aplomb, a born raconteur, freely offering anecdotes of the high and low, the fallen and the mighty. One moment, he tells a long-ago story of doing magic tricks at a Boys Club for a youngster named Evander Holyfield. He shares a memory of campaigning for MARTA in a helicopter, flying over traffic jams and shouting down through a loudspeaker, “If you had MARTA, you wouldn’t be stuck in this mess.” He offers observations on receiving the key to a city. (“The smaller the city, the bigger the key.”) He tells stories on Maynard, Andy, Ivan, Bill, Shirley, all the members of the exclusive former Atlanta mayors club.
He doesn’t believe in hunting, but he wears that buck head on his lapel and parts of his office could pass for a deer park.
Sure, it’s about Sam, but it’s about Atlanta even more. Massell can rattle off enough reasons to love Buckhead that even the Lord Almighty might consider relocating.
“We’ve got 28 square miles and 78,000 people,” he says. “We’ve got 5,300 hotel rooms and 1,400 retail units. We have 8,000 apartments under construction right now. Buckhead is a dramatic, dynamic, growing, successful community.”
Back in the travel agency days, Massell took special postcards with him on trips. Friends back in Atlanta received them in the mail, the cards postmarked from exotic destinations. Barcelona. Honolulu. Paris.
The cards read: It’s nice here, but it’s not Buckhead.
For Sam Massell, there’s no place like home.
He’s worked his whole life to make sure Atlanta is a good one.
Charles McNair writes for publications nationally and internationally. He is author of the novels “Pickett’s Charge” and “Land O’ Goshen” and he has been books editor at Paste Magazine since 2005.