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Where Ideas are Born

Sam Massell eases into retirement

Sam Massell believes in print media. He reads three dozen periodicals regularly, including this very magazine. He primarily pours over news specific to his beloved Buckhead, the 28-mile district whose growth he has helmed for 32 years as founder and president of the Buckhead Coalition. This select group of 100 CEOs is a nonprofit civic association that spearheads and funds projects that make Buckhead safer and more vibrant.  Projects like the 80 portable defibrillator trauma kit purchased and stationed throughout Buckhead, poised to save lives.

Massell admits he read about this initiative in one of the newsletters he peruses. He is the first to admit that many of the ideas that he comes up with have been “borrowed” from these valuable sources and other municipalities. (His wife, Sandra, asked Sam to say “borrowed” rather than “stole ideas” - one of her many positive influences, he says.)

“There might not be many new ideas in the world, but there are so many that we haven’t tried here,” he said in a phone interview last month from the home he and Sandra share in Buckhead.  He’s been nudged into a retirement dress rehearsal there during the pandemic, his full-time reign at the Buckhead Coalition transitioning to a consultancy at the end of this month. 

Our conversation never strayed far from ideas.

“If I pick up one idea a month, that’s wonderful - a dozen ideas a year from other people’s experience. And, borrowing one here, sharing one there can be very beneficial to all involved.”

He’s seen more than his share over his rich lifetime in Atlanta. From his first lightbulb moment as a young boy in Druid Hills, building a pop-up iced Coca-Cola stand serving commuters on busy N. Decatur Road to introducing racial diversity in the city’s government as Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor. He and his administration appointed the first African Americans to offices of influence, and the first woman to Atlanta’s city council.

Author Charles McNair was tapped to write Sam’s story, “Play it Again, Sam. The Notable Life of Sam Massell, Atlanta’s First Minority Mayor.”  In the very readable hardcover, McNair chronicles all “four careers, and then some, in the life of one of Atlanta’s most important figures, living or dead.”

Besides his youthful entrepreneurial sprint as Buddy Massell, Sam had four successful careers - real estate, politics, tourism an association management and McNair finds a common thread. “Some events will demonstrate how he might deservedly have been nicknamed ‘Serendipity Sam’ for an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time with the right ideas,” McNair writes. I think his success was about bravado, know-how and yes, ideas.

He “force feeds” attendees at the Buckhead Coalition’s annual luncheon, a grey suit-studded affair where he and his staff meticulously curate a seating chart so every table has a healthy mix of business members, press, educators, public servants and elected officials. They share conversations, commiserations and opinions from different perspectives over lunch with a speaker (Ted Turner, Gov. Brian Kemp, Mayors Kasim Reid and Keisha Lance Bottoms), and a bit of business which Sam firmly brings to a close at 1PM so the captains of industry can get back to their desks. 

For 2020, Sam hopes the Coalition will continue an appeal to brick and mortar bank buildings to offer up office space to young and underfunded nonprofit groups. “Nonprofits are like supplements to government, providing so many necessary services, touching so many lives.”

Just another borrowed idea that Sam turned into progress. 

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