Former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell is retiring as president of the Buckhead Coalition – and perhaps from public life – after 32 years in the position as the neighborhood’s biggest booster.

Massell, 92, made the surprise announcement at the coalition’s annual meeting Jan. 29 at the 103 West event hall, drawing hugs and applause of praise from the invitation-only guest of prominent business leaders and elected officials. The surprise was all the bigger due to attention on the anticipated keynote speaker and Buckhead resident, new U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who had to cancel due to the impeachment trial of President Trump.

Sam Massell is embraced by his wife Sandy Gordy shortly after announcing his retirement as president of the Buckhead Coalition at its Jan. 29 annual meeting. (John Ruch)

Massell announced his retirement in a joking style, saying he knew journalists would immediately ask why he is stepping down. “I have no earthly idea why,” he joked. Responding to heavy applause praising him, he joked, “If you don’t quit, I may run again.”

After the meeting, he said he is not immediately stepping down. A “succession committee” of the coalition is working on finding a new leader, he said. When asked whether he plans to truly settle down or remain active in some effort, he said, “I haven’t had any offers.”

Massell receives a gift bowl from the Buckhead Coalition at the meeting. Looking on, from left, are coalition board chairman Joseph Evans; Sandra Gordy; William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau; and City Council President Felicia Moore. (John Ruch)

Despite the humor, it was clearly a personal and emotional moment for the former mayor, who spoke while embraced by his wife, Sandra Gordy, and was lauded by his rabbi, Peter Berg of The Temple. Instead of the usual gift bag of items from Buckhead shops, meeting attendees received what Massell called “something personal to me” – a mezuzah, a Jewish religious item consisting of a box containing a prayer scroll, which is affixed to doorways. Massell said the mezuzahs were from Israel and had a “written prayer inside that tries to express our love for you, our history with you, our future… that lies ahead.”

“You’re the ones who build a wonderful community like this,” he told the attendees. Noting that he makes sure the annual meeting has a mingled group of business leaders, elected officials and journalists, he said, “You put those three together and you can build anything.”

A mezuzah, a Jewish prayer item, that was given to attendees by Massell as a personal gift. (John Ruch)

Massell, who had successful careers in real estate brokering and the travel industry, served as mayor in 1970 through 1974. In 1988, he became the founding president of the coalition, a 100-member, invitation-only group of community leaders that works on local advocacy and charitable campaigns.

Joseph Evans, the coalition’s board chairman, told the attendees that he now knew how the biblical Israelites felt when Moses stepped down. He recounted some of Massell’s accomplishments. Massell, who was the city’s first Jewish mayor, worked to diversify its administration and was a leader on the creation of MARTA. At the coalition, Evans said, Massell successfully advocated for the extension of the Ga. 400 highway through Buckhead and the creation of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, a self-taxing group of commercial property owners that works on public safety and transportation issues.

The bowl given to Massell by the Buckhead Coalition to honor him. (John Ruch)

Garth Peters, the coalition’s executive vice president, presented Massell with a silver bowl braced on silver deer antlers – a nod to the neighborhood’s name – that was created by the Charles Willis store on East Paces Ferry Road. “Hail our leader… For a lifetime of excellence, endurance, dedication and statesmanship,” read a plaque on the bowl’s base.

As for Loeffler, she sent a note that Peters read to the crowd. “Now that I am seeing our government from the inside, it is even more apparent to me how vital organizations like the Buckhead Coalition are for our communities and our state,” she said in the message.

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John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.