On March 16, The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg welcomed “governors, mayors and City Council members” to the funeral service of former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell, who died at 94. A member of The Temple, Massell served one term in office as the city’s first Jewish mayor, from 1970-74. Berg spoke of Massell’s irreplaceability to his family and his legacy as a “mayor’s mayor,” serving as a bridge between the city’s past and the future.
“Sam will be judged by the city he made better,” Berg said. “His life and deeds will never depart. … Sam lived not to amass, but to give, utterly unselfishly. Perhaps his greatest gift in an anxious world was to convey that ‘everything will be ok.’”
Recalling Psalm 23, which speaks of walking through “the valley of the shadow of death,” Berg noted that a valley has open sides to provide a way out of mourning. “Sam would have wanted us to see the sunshine,” he said. Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Sugarman joined virtually to recall how Massell’s Jewish faith inspired his high ideals and love of the city.
Massell’s cousin, real estate magnate Steve Selig, joked, “Sam may have been the ‘poorer’ Massell, but if measured by his friends and family, he was the richest.” As a young man, Selig had followed Massell to UGA, then started in the real estate industry, watching him as a “whirling dervish, always on the go.”
He remembered Massell for running the Buckhead Coalition of “150 Type A personalities, which he appeased for decades,” and concluded with his best imitation of his cousin’s jocular and abrupt way of ending meetings with a bunch of rules that he never intended to execute and then banging the gavel. In closing, Selig recited a poem from his own father’s funeral in 1986, “I follow a famous father … never a stain attached to him, he gave the pride of an honest game. Sam left a lifetime of good memories.”
Massell’s biographer, Charles McNair, spoke about his work on “Play It Again, Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell, Atlanta’s First Minority Mayor,” during which he realized, after weeks of research, that Massell wanted to be remembered not as a realtor or leader, but as a “champion of peace.” McNair spoke about his own recent trip from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on MARTA, another part of Massell’s legacy, to his Buckhead hotel, “in a very few minutes, not using any gas and nodding at Tower Place and other landmarks as part of Sam’s legacy.”
Another part of the former mayor’s legacy, McNair said, was leaving office with 40 percent of city government composed of African Americans, compared to 20 percent when he took office. He said he pictured Massell in heaven, “now with a bullhorn directing and making everything better.”
Atlanta’s current mayor, Andre Dickens, said that, as a child, he kept statistics about mayors along with sports rosters, and that Massell became a source of inspiration. In his own Baptist church, he had learned that “Love should look like something. … Sam drew circles not just lines,” Dickens said. He also touched on the recent political controversy surrounding the proposed City of Buckhead’s split from Atlanta and how Massell had “remained true to the value of the whole city.”
Having recently celebrated his 90th birthday, former Atlanta Mayor and current United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young recalled the suffering experienced by The Temple in a South that was not prepared for Black or Jewish leadership. “Then we decided we would be a city ‘too busy to hate’ starting in the 1940s. Sam brought the visions together of what the city ought to be. Note that neither Hartsfield, nor Ivan Allen nor Massell ever got the majority white vote,” he said.
Young gave credit to Massell for using a mass transit sales tax to fund MARTA and launch a “coalition of kindness.”
“Not another city voted for that besides Atlanta,” he said, noting that Massell was not just a politician or a “term” mayor, but continued to serve the city with “humility, rough decisions, vision and courage.”
Peter Yarrow — of Peter, Paul and Mary — joined virtually to perform “Blowing in the Wind” with audience participation. Yarrow recalled knowing Massell in the “times of Maddox and Calloway,” concluding: “Sam was a mensch among mensches.”
Cantor Deborah Hartman chanted the “El Malei Rachamim” prayer as mourners exited the chapel to a piano rendition of “My Way.” Earlier, Massell’s daughter, Melanie Massell, had performed “Keeper of the Stars” while gazing skyward.
Following the service, the motorcade proceeded to Oakland Cemetery for a graveside burial.
- Marcia Caller Jaffe
- The Temple Atlanta
- Sam Massell
- Rabbi Peter Berg
- Psalm 23
- Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Sugarman
- Steve Selig
- Charles McNair
- Buckhead Coalition
- University of Georgia
- Hartsfield Jackson International Airport
- Andre Dickens
- Andrew Young
- Peter Yarrow
- Paul and Mary
- El Malei Rachamim
- Melanie Massell
- oakland cemetery