At 92, former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell ready for his next adventure

Sam and Sandra Massell pose for a photo in Sam’s office in Atlanta on February 13, 2020. Their wedding in 2016 occurred a year after the death of Massell’s first wife, Doris, to whom Massell had been married since 1952. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

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Sam and Sandra Massell pose for a photo in Sam’s office in Atlanta on February 13, 2020. Their wedding in 2016 occurred a year after the death of Massell’s first wife, Doris, to whom Massell had been married since 1952. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

‘Mayor of Buckhead’ to retire from Buckhead Coalition

Sam Massell won’t let you miss him when he’s gone.

A few days into one of his trips with his wife, Sandra, postcards show up in the mailboxes of friends and associates back home. The front will show a sleek cruise ship or a charming village somewhere. The message on the back is always the same:

“It’s very nice here, but it’s not Buckhead!”

The Massells are pondering their next trip — the Greek Isles, maybe — given Sam’s recent decision to retire from his longtime post as founding president of the Buckhead Coalition.

“I don’t think anyone thought Sam would ever retire,” Sandra said. “They all thought he would die with his boots on.”

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Massell, who was Atlanta’s mayor from 1970-74 and has led the Buckhead Coalition from its start in 1988, revealed the move at the civic group’s annual meeting in January. The transition will be gradual. Massell, 92, won’t vacate his Tower Place office, with its enormous trove of photos, letters and mementos, until a successor is identified. That’ll probably take a few months.

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In his Atlanta office, Sam Massell keeps knickknacks from his time as mayor of Atlanta and president of the Buckhead Coalition. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

In his Atlanta office, Sam Massell keeps knickknacks from his time as mayor of Atlanta and president of the Buckhead Coalition. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

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In his Atlanta office, Sam Massell keeps knickknacks from his time as mayor of Atlanta and president of the Buckhead Coalition. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

“You cannot replace Sam in that role. There’s no substitute,” said Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center and secretary of the Buckhead Coalition. “I’ve worked with him a long time. It’s always been a privilege.”

Massell and fellow former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young were honored at the Atlanta History Center's 2018 Swan House Ball.

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Sam Massell and Andrew Young in 1971. Massell was Atlanta’s mayor from 1970-74, while Young was elected mayor in 1981 and re-elected in 1985. (AJC file photo)

Sam Massell and Andrew Young in 1971. Massell was Atlanta’s mayor from 1970-74, while Young was elected mayor in 1981 and re-elected in 1985. (AJC file photo)

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Sam Massell and Andrew Young in 1971. Massell was Atlanta’s mayor from 1970-74, while Young was elected mayor in 1981 and re-elected in 1985. (AJC file photo)

“He is the most relentless, sunny promoter of Buckhead,” Hale said. “Who else in the world can get away with saying traffic is good?”

Where commuters might see vexatious gridlock, of course, Massell sees glorious progress.

“When you look out there and see the skyline, that wasn’t here when we started,” he said of the view from his office. “I moved to Buckhead in 1952. I was renting an apartment for $50 a month on Adina and Lindbergh (drives). Since then, they’ve built some half-million-dollar condos there. They had me cut the ribbon.”

He also recalls the area’s once rural feel.

“My father used to bring me to the watermelon stand where the Peachtree Battle shopping center is now,” he said.

Massell’s entrepreneurial bent blossomed early. As a spirited 9-year-old he sold bottles of Coca-Cola for 5 cents, netting a 2-cent profit on each. In grade school he operated a little store for students, selling items such as pens and tablets to his classmates out of a closet.

He had to be goaded into politics, though.

“When I was 15, lacking self-confidence and actually an introvert — hard to believe, when I brag today about having such a big ego — I was asked by a classmate to paint his signs when he was running for president of the student body,” Massell said. His buddy won, then used his executive powers to make cabinet appointments. Massell seemed like a good fit for Druid Hills High School’s student body treasurer.

“I declined. He made me do it,” Massell said. “I did it, and I liked it, and I never turned back.”

His tenure as Atlanta mayor was a time of progress. A 1970 photo of Massell with his executive secretary, Norma Day, captured one major milestone: the day female City Hall employees could start wearing pants to work.

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In October 1970, Sam Massell made history, announcing women could wear pants to work. He’s shown with Norma Day, his executive secretary at the time. (AJC archive photo: Charles Pugh)

In October 1970, Sam Massell made history, announcing women could wear pants to work. He’s shown with Norma Day, his executive secretary at the time. (AJC archive photo: Charles Pugh)

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In October 1970, Sam Massell made history, announcing women could wear pants to work. He’s shown with Norma Day, his executive secretary at the time. (AJC archive photo: Charles Pugh)

“Mrs. Day, the mother of four children, says there are more important things in the world for women to consider than hemlines, like the war and people who are hungry,” the cutline read.

Massell’s proudest moment as mayor was appointing Panke Bradley to the City Council, then called the Board of Aldermen. Detractors quailed at a woman serving in the role. “Where will she go to the bathroom?” he remembers them fretting.

“I was the one that found myself in charge of peacefully — and that’s the key word — transitioning our local city government from an all-white power structure to a predominately black city government,” he continued. “Other cities did that and had riots. I was able to avoid that.”

The late Maynard Jackson, the city’s first African-American mayor, succeeded Massell in office.

“We became good friends,” said Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, Jackson’s first wife. Although Massell was defeated by her former husband, Massell helped her on a project to have shelters installed at MARTA bus stops, she said.

“He was considerate, he was thoughtful, he was available and he was kind,” Jackson-Ransom said. “He helped me in spite of the fact that he and Maynard were not good friends. The only thing I can say is, ‘Thank you, Sam.’”

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Sam Massell with his wife Doris and their three children on the day of his Atlanta mayoral election victory in October 1969. Left to right: Cindy, Sam, Melanie, Doris and Steven Massell. Doris Massell died in 2015. (AJC archive photo/ Billy Downs)

Sam Massell with his wife Doris and their three children on the day of his Atlanta mayoral election victory in October 1969. Left to right: Cindy, Sam, Melanie, Doris and Steven Massell. Doris Massell died in 2015. (AJC archive photo/ Billy Downs)

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Sam Massell with his wife Doris and their three children on the day of his Atlanta mayoral election victory in October 1969. Left to right: Cindy, Sam, Melanie, Doris and Steven Massell. Doris Massell died in 2015. (AJC archive photo/ Billy Downs)

Massell enjoyed a friendship with another one-time political rival, the late Rodney Mims Cook Sr.

“We’d have lunch with him. We’d always see him at the White House,” said Rodney Cook Jr., referring to the Buckhead breakfast-and-lunch spot. After Massell became mayor, he appointed Rodney Jr.’s mother, Bettijo Hogan Cook, to the city’s civic design commission, now called the urban design commission. While serving on the board, she learned of plans to demolish the historic Fox Theatre.

“She came home apoplectic to save it,” Cook said. Today the Massells live just a few miles from the successfully saved landmark. Their condominium off Peachtree Street was the site of their 2016 wedding. Massell had been widowed the year before. He and Doris Massell married in 1952.

The Rev. Sam Candler, dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip, and The Temple Senior Rabbi Peter S. Berg jointly officiated at Sam and Sandra Massell’s double-ring ceremony. No one else, not even her sister nor his children, knew ahead of time. The wedding party consisted entirely of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and photographer.

“We’re in the fourth quarter of life,” the bride said that day.

“A lot of the best exciting events happen in that fourth quarter,” said the groom.

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Sam and Sandra Massell on their wedding day in 2016. (AJC photo: Brant Sanderlin)

Sam and Sandra Massell on their wedding day in 2016. (AJC photo: Brant Sanderlin)

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Sam and Sandra Massell on their wedding day in 2016. (AJC photo: Brant Sanderlin)

Here’s video of the wedding:

In similar fashion, his decision to retire from the Buckhead Coalition came with no advance word. Tributes have been pouring in ever since.

“There will definitely be a void left behind,” said Niko Karatassos, president of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. Its private event location, 103 West, has been the site of Buckhead Coalition events over the years.

“Sam is someone you want on your side,” Karatassos said. “No matter what the issue, he was always available for making sure he could help in making Buckhead and the city a better place.”

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Developer Tom Cousins and Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell break ground for the Omni on March 31, 1971. (AJC archive photo / Charles Pugh)

Developer Tom Cousins and Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell break ground for the Omni on March 31, 1971. (AJC archive photo / Charles Pugh)

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Developer Tom Cousins and Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell break ground for the Omni on March 31, 1971. (AJC archive photo / Charles Pugh)

Ted Blum, managing shareholder of law firm Greenberg Traurig’s Atlanta practice, called Massell an icon.

“His tremendous work and leadership through the Buckhead Coalition have been the catalyst for an incredible amount of good across our city,” Blum said. “The programs his organization pioneered have been transformative in shaping our city for the better.”

Over the years, Buckhead Coalition initiatives have included funding defibrillators to be placed in area churches, hotels and office buildings. It announced a $5,000 reward for information after a string of shootings at Lenox Square. With coronavirus concerns dominating recent headlines, the group announced it would give away face masks.

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After the Olympics, Young turned more of his attention to economic development through GoodWorks and the Southern African Enterprise Development Fund. He also found time to burnish his legacy and to serve as a living link to Atlanta's Civil Rights past. In 1997, he joined four other living Atlanta mayors (Bill Campbell, Sam Massell, Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson) in the dedication of the "Mayors Grove" at Piedmont Park. (Rich Addicks / AJC file)

Credit: Rich Addicks

After the Olympics, Young turned more of his attention to economic development through GoodWorks and the Southern African Enterprise Development Fund. He also found time to burnish his legacy and to serve as a living link to Atlanta's Civil Rights past. In 1997, he joined four other living Atlanta mayors (Bill Campbell, Sam Massell, Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson) in the dedication of the "Mayors Grove" at Piedmont Park. (Rich Addicks / AJC file)

Credit: Rich Addicks

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After the Olympics, Young turned more of his attention to economic development through GoodWorks and the Southern African Enterprise Development Fund. He also found time to burnish his legacy and to serve as a living link to Atlanta's Civil Rights past. In 1997, he joined four other living Atlanta mayors (Bill Campbell, Sam Massell, Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson) in the dedication of the "Mayors Grove" at Piedmont Park. (Rich Addicks / AJC file)

Credit: Rich Addicks

Credit: Rich Addicks

“We go in every direction you can think of, whether it’s health, public safety, parks or traffic,” Massell said. With retirement looming, he is still sending out news releases.

He’s perusing vacation brochures, too.

“We are very excited about this next chapter,” Sandra Massell said.

“People still call us newlyweds, they call us honeymooners. We don’t object to that,” her husband said. “We feel like this is the fourth quarter for us. We want to make the most of it. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be great.”

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