Above: Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell is embraced by his wife Sandy Gordy shortly after announcing his retirement as president of the Buckhead Coalition at its annual meeting on Jan. 29. (File)

Sam Massell is a prime example of the term “pillar of the community.” The Atlanta native’s early real estate career drew him into a life of civic involvement: Atlanta City Council member, Atlanta mayor from 1970 to 1974 and later, founding president of the high-profile Buckhead Coalition civic and business group, a position from which he just retired after 32 years.

Now in his early 90s, Massell says he has every intention of staying active and adds that hard work has been a hallmark of his life. He spoke to Atlanta Senior Life contributor Mark Woolsey recently by phone.

Q: What prompted your retirement from the coalition?

A: I saw other people had retired 40 years before and thought maybe that’s what I was supposed to do. Actually, no one thing prompted it, other than I have a new wife I just married two or three years ago and wanted to spend more time with her. I didn’t have any one item that triggered it. In fact, it wasn’t a week after I announced it that I had seller’s remorse.

Q: What do you consider major accomplishments in connection with the Buckhead Coalition?

A: It was an ongoing effort to nurture the quality of life of the people who visited, worked or played in Buckhead and that population kept increasing and, as it kept increasing, we branded it as a destination of choice.

One item I am particularly proud of is that we were the first entity in the U.S. that placed external defibrillators where people were, not just in ambulances…we put them in hotels, shopping centers, office buildings and churches in the Buckhead area.

[Another was] promoting and persuading City Council members to support the extension of Ga. 400 from I-285 through Buckhead to I-85, which connected us to the rest of the world…it just opened up commerce and industry for Buckhead very dramatically.

Q: How do you feel Buckhead has developed as an entity?

A: I feel it has developed well. We were welcoming and encouraging people to come there and make it their home as well as their business location…We don’t feel that it’s been overbuilt.

Q: How do you feel the city of Atlanta is being led?

A: It’s different from the way we led it. I think my legacy, I guess, is being the one who was in charge when the city went through a peaceful transition from an all-white power structure to a predominantly black city government. Other cities went through that same change in different ways, and to different degrees many of them had unrest and those are problems we avoided.

Q: Is the city moving in a good direction?

A: I think the city is in as healthy a shape as you can be, considering the health issues we’re facing now. I don’t see that getting resolved for another year at least. I am quarantined because of my age.

Mayor Bottoms appointed me to a committee on that issue (COVID-19). She and her staff came up with a good formula [for dealing with the pandemic], which is very detailed — Phases One, Two and Three. And now we’re back in Phase One again. I think she is right that government should respect home rule and be happy that cities take on the responsibility and make decisions.

Q: What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?

A: I think it’s going to be a major organization nationally. There are several other groups that have tried to get started, but they [BLM] seem to have the best leadership, so they don’t have people who are purposely looking for trouble and are looking for progress instead. The solution is to go from confrontation to the conference table.

Q: What do you think the next chapter of your life holds for you?

A: I am waiting for the first opportunity to come my way. I did register as a write-in candidate for the unexpired 2020 term of Rep. John Lewis. In the meantime, I’m thoroughly enjoying the quarantine time with my (new) wife Sandra, as well as keeping abreast of all the business and political news. Plus, there’s the daily happy hour at about 5 p.m.

Mark Woolsey

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.