Sam Massell with his wife Sandy Gordy after announcing his retirement as president of the Buckhead Coalition at its 2020 annual meeting. (John Ruch)

One of Buckhead’s greatest champions has died.

Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell died Sunday morning, according to the AJC. He was 94.

Massell helmed the city from 1970 to 1974 and is credited with establishing MARTA. Not only did he get the state legislature to OK a sales tax referendum to fund MARTA, but he worked to convince voters to pass the one-cent sales tax to pay for the transit system.

“He went into local churches and climbed on city buses, with chalk and a blackboard, to illustrate the idea. He also hopped into a helicopter and flew over Atlanta afternoon traffic jams shouting to commuters below, ‘If you want to get out of this mess, vote yes,’” says a 2018 Atlanta Business Chronicle article, published when the newspaper honored Massell with its Visionary Award.

“Sam was a tireless advocate for both the Buckhead community and the city of Atlanta,” said Jim Durrett, president of the Buckhead Coalition and executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District. “As mayor of Atlanta in the early 1970s, he did truly meaningful work to diversify city government, appointing people of color and women to positions of significant responsibility.”

Durrett added that after Andrew Young lost his first bid to U.S. Congress in 1970, Massell appointed him to a position in the Atlanta government “that gave Andy the reputation and name recognition that led to his ultimate election to Congress.”

Massell would later run a tourism business in Buckhead and in 1988 became the founding president of the Buckhead Coalition, a position he retired from in 2020.

Massell was widely regarded as the “Mayor of Buckhead” for his involvement in the community. He had advocated for the extension of the Ga. 400 highway through Buckhead, as well as the creation of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, which funds transportation and public safety projects and programs.

“Sam’s impact on our city was immeasurable,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said in a statement. “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.”

The Atlanta City Council said in a statement that Massell will be deeply missed. “His passion for civic service and making a difference in our city will be forever remembered.”

Anna Roach, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, called Massell a visionary leader who shaped the 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,” Roach said. “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.”

A service is planned for March 16 at The Temple, according to the AJC.

This story has been updated to reflect the date of the memorial service. It’s March 16, not 17.

Amy Wenk

Amy Wenk

Amy Wenk was editor of Reporter Newspapers in 2021-22.