Swan House Ball honoree Sam Massell reflects on decades of progress

Buckhead Coalition president and former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell will be honored at the 2018 Swan House Ball. Photo: Jennifer Brett

Believe it or not, longtime Buckhead Coalition president and former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell had to be goaded into politics.

“When I was 15, lacking self confidence and actually an introvert – hard to believe, when I brag today about having such a big ego – I was asked by a classmate to paint his signs when he was running for president of the student body,” Massell said. His buddy won, then used his executive powers to make cabinet appointments. Massell seemed like a good fit for Druid Hills High School’s student body treasurer.

“I declined. He made me do it,” Massell said. “I did it, and I liked it, and I never turned back.”

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Massell and his fellow former mayor, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, will be honored at the this year’s Swan House Ball, benefiting the Atlanta History Center. The black-tie event starts at 6:30 p.m. April 21 with cocktails on the lawn of the Swan House, followed by dinner, dancing and a live auction at the Grand Overlook Ballroom inside the History Center’s main building.

Ginny Brewer and Patrice Greer are the event chairs. Corporate chairs are Ernest Greer and John Shlesinger, the host committee and patron chairs are Jack Sawyer and Bill Torres and Millie and Steve Smith, the Ladies & Gentlemen’s Committee chairs are Barbara and Eric Joiner and patron party hosts are Lorri and Forrest McClain. Key sponsors include the Chick-fil-A Foundation, Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby’s International Realty, Greenberg Traurig, the Coca-Cola Co., Cox Enterprises Inc., Delta Air Lines, Jenny and Bob Pruitt and Wells Fargo.

Massell is thrilled to be honored, especially given he and Young will be saluted together.

“It makes it doubly important,” he said.

MORE: Andrew Young says, “The Atlanta History Center is also a Future Center”

In October 1970, Sam Massell made history, announcing women could wear pants to work. He’s shown with Norma Day, his executive secretary at the time. AJC archive photo: Charles Pugh

Scouring the AJC archives for a vintage photograph befitting the occasion we came across a black and white frame shot in October 1970. It’s a pretty basic image of then Mayor Massell and his executive secretary, Norma Day, standing in the office.

Yet it documented a significant moment in Atlanta history: when female City Hall employees could start wearing pants to work.

“Mrs. Day, the mother of four children, says there are more important things in the world for women to consider than hemlines, like the war and people who are hungry,” the cutline read.

Asked for his highest moments in office, Massell recalled other points of progress.

“My proudest moment as mayor was appointing Panke Bradley as a member of the City Council, then called the Board of Aldermen,” Massell said. The mayor at the time had the power to fill vacancies. When the first one arose, Massell told his staff to find qualified women for his consideration.

“Today that just sounds so trite. Back then, you can’t imagine what people were saying,” he recalled. “Where will she go to the bathroom? Sam, what are you thinking about, appointing a woman? There had not been a woman on the city council. Half the population was female and we weren’t getting that representation.”

Massell, the city’s first Jewish mayor, is proud of increasing diversity among elected officials over the years. He turns 91 in August but remains a tireless Buckhead booster, excited with each new development and opportunity.

“Just look out the window. That skyline wasn’t there 10 years ago,” he said .”The growth that has taken place is dramatic, to say the least.”

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