NOTE: The following chapter from Play It Again, Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell, Atlanta’s First Minority Mayor (Mercer University Press) by Charles McNair is being posted here with permission.
“Druid Hills was beautiful, a beautiful place for a boy to grow up.” -- Alfred Uhry, author of Driving Miss Daisy
Buddy Massell woke with an idea.
Sam went by Buddy in his schoolboy days. Buddy, as in Bud, like a bud on the branch of a family tree. The nickname distinguished him around the house from his father, the first Samuel Alan Massell, a downtown Atlanta lawyer, and a lover of politics and fruit trees and a good newspaper.
One June morning in 1936, Buddy leaped from bed, early and bright. He hit the varnished wood floors of the Massells’ modest (for upper-class Druid Hills) two-story house. Downstairs, his father and mother softly talked over their breakfast – the usual eggs and toast, not bagels.
Summer meant kids slept late, no schedules, no Druid Hills grade school.
But Buddy didn’t sleep late. His idea wouldn’t wait.
He bolted through the front door, bound on a beeline from 1280 Oakdale Road toward a thinly wooded nearby lot at the corner of North Decatur Road.
He hurried past the more stately houses of his Druid Hill neighbors. Herman Talmadge, future Georgia governor and future U.S. senator, lived on Buddy’s block. So did the Duckworths, related to a state Supreme Court justice. Mailboxes displayed other notable Atlanta family names – Gellerstedt, Held, Sloan.
Buddy passed the house of Bertram Jacobson, later a household-name celebrity. Jacobson, as Bert Parks, would host the Miss America Pageant. From 1955 to 1979, he annually crooned the beauty pageant’s famous theme song to millions of TV viewers:
There she is … Miss America! There she is … your ideal!
And there he was – Buddy Massell. A boy with a big idea.
Buddy scouted out the corner lot, found it satisfactory, hustled back home. He returned struggling under a bulky load, some kind of folded wooden origami contraption – a portable
Buddy dragged up a wooden half-barrel for ice and soft drinks. He put his own sign, newly painted, atop the finished construction:
Bud’s Place would be no fly-by-night operation, here and gone like a summer firefly. As June turned into July and July stretched into August, the stout little proprietor of Bud’s Place discovered something important about himself.
He could naturally wheel and deal.
Every morning, an ice truck rumbled up to Buddy’s corner, and the youngster bought a big clear cold block and some salt. He chipped the ice over soft drinks in the half-barrel. Before long, a
His neighborhood buddies hung out with him. When cars approached, his helpers hopped to the curb and took the orders from customers. Buddy served his patrons ice-cold dripping bottles, no cups. Customers had to drink the Cokes before they left. Buddy ran a penny-wise operation – each bottle carried a deposit.
Business was good. But business can always be better.
Sam Massell Sr., a proud and supportive dad, printed up 3” x 3” cards to advertise Bud’s Place. And Buddy Massell always had more than a little Tom Sawyer in him. The young entrepreneur convinced the neighborhood kids to stuff his advertisements in the scores of mailboxes along Springdale, Oxford, Lullwater, and other streets of Druid Hills. Buddy paid each young marketing rep with a cold
He expanded his product line. Orange drinks and grape drinks chilled in the ice bucket next to the Cokes. He added a nickel candy-bar vending machine so customers could buy Baby Ruths, Hershey’s, Butterfingers. (The candy bar line of business ended abruptly. One night, some convict-in-training pumped metal slugs into the coin slot and liquidated Buddy’s entire inventory.)
Buddy even sneaked a few beers from his dad’s refrigerator and sold those. “One hundred percent profit,” Sam remembers. “Until my daddy caught me.”
You can’t do that, Sam Sr. firmly told him in his quiet, Atticus-Finch manner. That ended the black-market beer business.
No matter. Buddy had built it. People came.
Studebakers and Fords. Packards and pick-up trucks. Cadillacs. Workmen made the best customers, commuting to and from their neighborhood jobs every day. Buddy and his boys handed cold ones through their open windows. He made people smile. He had a way.
At dusk, Buddy crated the unsold inventory and lugged everything back home. He even picked up the bottle tops.
Competitors could see Bud’s Place doing well. Jealousy can be a powerful motivator. One young neighbor set up a rival roadside stand at a busier intersection. The kid’s daddy printed up bigger flyers. The upstart hired his own goons to stuff the oversized advertising in mailboxes.
Competition? No problem.
Buddy again dispatched his buddies. They removed the competing flyers from every single mailbox. The de-advertising campaign only cost Buddy a few
But how could a competitor keep up with Bud’s Place anyway? Buddy now had two 3’ x 3’
Even so, another competitor took aim. This boy set up a stand at the corner of Emory Road and Oxford Road, within yelling distance.
Then, for some reason, Buddy’s new rival yelled at his own helpers.
The competitor’s work force staged a sit-down strike. A newspaper reporter caught wind of the story, and the strike became a headline. In no time, gawkers cruised through Druid Hills to see elementary school boys refusing to work, protesting. The young strikers sat down on a curb to stand up for their principles.
A lot of those passing curiosity-seekers pulled up to – where else? – Bud’s Place. Witnessing a midsummer sit-down strike made folks thirsty. People could depend on Buddy’s corner – no labor strikes there! Customers knew they could reliably quench their thirst with an ice-cold
The Druid Hills corner planted an observation that Sam would apply in his real estate career years later: Location. Location. Location.
“It was a pretty good corner,” Sam Massell recalls some 80 years later during interviews in his fifth-floor Tower Place office. (The Buckhead Coalition office overlooks a wealth of good corners in that ritzy part of Atlanta.)
“Well … it was a pretty good corner … until it wasn’t.”
One perfectly fine summer day, a police cruiser pulled up in front of Bud’s Place. Two officers in blue uniforms and polished black leather stepped out of the car.
They left the engine running.
Buddy felt a giddy rush. Two more sales! And the young tycoon would bet his bottom dollar that these two policemen would go back to the station and tell every other police officer in Atlanta where they could buy a mighty fine Coke on a mighty hot day.
The first officer cleared his throat. This is some little operation you got goin’ here, son.
Buddy beamed. Yes sir, he proudly answered, but southern, polite, brought up to always be mindful of authority.
The officer glanced uneasily at his sidekick. A hot summer silence beat down. The officer spoke again.
Son, you run a business this size, you need a business license.
Buddy Massell, astonished, found nothing to say … for maybe the first and last time in his life.
“These officers got out of their car, and I saw a shiny dime,” Sam remembers. “Then, all of a sudden, my whole business was going down the drain.”
The officer explained. These two stands. All this stuff. You’re competing with grocery stores, son. You’re running a real business here. You got a business license?
Buddy didn’t have a business license. So Bud’s Place came down. Summer ended. Buddy went back to grade school.
Still, he had more ideas.
He would wake up with a new one most every morning of his life.
People in Atlanta said the name Massell with respect.
Prior to the Great Depression, three Massells – Sam Sr. and his brothers, Ben and Levi – achieved prominence in real estate.
The most financially successful, Buddy’s uncle Ben Massell, made a fortune, lost it in hard times, and then like Old Testament Job made another fortune, bigger than the first, in the boom after World War II.
Called Mr. Real Estate by the newspapers of the day, Ben Massell built more downtown buildings than any other developer of his era, more than 1,000 of them. Many handsome seven- or eight-story structures stood along Peachtree Road, West Peachtree Street, and Spring Street. Ben Massell also built at Peachtree and 7th streets the vast Government Services Administration building, at a half-million square feet the largest structure in Atlanta at that time.
In short, the Massell family name became synonymous with progress, growth, development. Massell stood for something, a brand, long before branding teams filled entire floors of corporate high-rises … and even before true skyscrapers serrated the Atlanta skyline.
Like his brother Ben, Sam Sr. also made good money in real estate before the Crash of ’29. But after he lost his shirt in the Great Depression, Buddy’s father abandoned property speculation for an entirely new trade, attending Atlanta Law School to master jurisprudence. He soon ran a general legal practice out of an office in the William Oliver Building, a structure that still stands as a condominium complex today in the Five Points area of downtown Atlanta.
“After the crash, my father always paid cash for whatever he bought,” Sam recalls. “I think after losing so much of his money in the Depression he was always afraid of being in debt again.”
The legal work paid steadily, if sometimes in extremely unusual currency. Sam Sr. received “all kinds of tokens” in payment for legal work, Sam remembers.
The candy bar vending machine that wound up at Bud’s Place, for instance, had paid off one fee for Sam Sr.’s legal services. Another client settled his debt with a billy goat. The care and feeding of the feisty animal somehow fell to Buddy. Naturally the diabolical creature (the goat, not Buddy) slipped its tether and got into a greenhouse of prize orchids lovingly grown by Mr. Held a couple of houses down.
“A goat that eats orchids,” Sam says, “is a first-class goat.”
The affluence of Druid Hills didn’t mean it lacked adventures, some right out of Mayberry, some more from Peyton Place. (Sam remembers that Dr. Sloan, the next-door neighbor, married and divorced the same woman three times.)
Once, Buddy got into a stick fight with “some mean boys” in front of Dr. Sloan’s house. A wicked blow laid open Buddy’s cheek below one eye. Dr. Sloan personally came out and gave first aid. The cut left a good story, but no scar severe enough to mar Sam’s looks.
To antagonize the Meld brothers, who gave him the wound, Buddy raised a Jolly Roger over the chimney of a vacant back-yard servant quarters he used as a hide-out. The Melds could clearly see the leering skull and crossbones from their house windows.
Provoked, they retaliated, using balsa-wood splinters to pin the ears of Buddy’s dog atop its head. For one dreary afternoon, the Massell family pet became the laughing stock of Druid Hills.
Buddy got the mean boys back with yet another good idea. He convinced the Melds that if they bent the sights on their BB gun, it would shoot around corners.
Mr. Meld worked in the insurance business, but he did a little business on the side for Jesus. He sometimes invited Buddy over for a meeting of “Friendly Indians.” The Friendly Indians – those four rough brothers and Buddy – assembled balsa wood airplanes, enjoyed cookies and Kool-Aid … and listened to Mr. Meld “promote good clean Christian living,” as Sam describes it.
Mr. Meld meant to save Buddy’s soul, for one pure and simple reason.
Buddy Massell was a Jew.
“I always ate the cookies,” Sam confesses. “But I never drank the Kool-Aid.”
A Jew in the Deep South lived differently from a Jew most other places.
In the American South, perhaps uniquely in the post-Diaspora world, upper-class Jews often assimilated into the social fabric. For some southern Jews, it became as important to be perceived as Southern as to be Jewish.
“We thought of ourselves first as Southern, second as American, and third as Jews,” says writer Alfred Uhry. “The problem was that nobody else thought that way about us. My family had been in Atlanta since before there was an Atlanta, but that didn’t matter to some people.”
Like Sam 10 years ahead of him, Uhry grew up Jewish in Druid Hills. The playwright wrote famously about the neighborhood in his play Driving Miss Daisy, winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and winner of four Academy Awards as a film.
In smaller cities and towns – Mobile, Columbus, Birmingham – Jews lived not in enclaves or ghettoes, but sprinkled throughout their southern communities, threads in the general cultural tapestry. Many downtowns south of the Mason-Dixon Line boasted a Hoffman Furniture, or a Blumberg and Sons, or a Bromberg’s – or a Rich’s, as in Atlanta. The enterprise anchored commerce and served every sort of shopper those segregated times allowed.
Still, Jews weren’t common. In 1926, the year before Sam’s birth, Georgia only had 22 Jewish congregations and 13 synagogues. And though their faith always kept Jews apart in distinct ways, often the small-town/small-city (the only kind of community in the South until the mid-20th century) life in Dixie allowed at least a superficially cordial relationship between Jews and their Christian neighbors.
Jews could even achieve great prominence – Judah P. Benjamin, the financier of the Confederacy, for example, may arguably have been the most important figure of the 1860s South not named Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee.
Still, religious tensions always lurked. In 1915, the ugly lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew, in Marietta, Georgia, heightened a sense of religious separation. Even in Atlanta, progressive by Deep South standards, intolerance surfaced, sometimes in shockingly casual ways.
Sam Sr.’s birth certificate, for instance, listed his race: Jew. The birth certificate for Buddy’s mom labeled her too: Jewess.
Buddy also remembers that he often pedaled his bike past a sign of the times posted at the Venetian Pool in DeKalb County:
NO DOGS OR JEWS.
A few days after Buddy entered life on August 26, 1927, Sam Sr. and Florence Rubin Massell brought their little dark-haired bundle home from Piedmont Hospital to a handsome apartment complex with the family name out front.
Buddy’s father and his uncles, Ben and Levi, built The Masselton Apartments, Buddy’s first home. The complex sits across Ponce de Leon Avenue from Ivy Hall, formerly the Peters Mansion, only a few blocks from Peachtree Road, Atlanta’s social and financial spinal cord.
As Atlanta grew to the east in the first half of the 1900s, the Massells made this expanding section of the city ground zero for their realty ventures. They erected living places, shopping centers, warehouses, and more. (A number of Massell buildings, including the Masselton, still stand in the Ponce/Midtown area.)
The Masselton laid claim to being the first fireproof apartment building in Atlanta, the first apartment complex with basement garbage incinerators, and the first with indoor parking.
Buddy’s family enjoyed these ultramodern innovations barely a month before taking up residence at their house on Oakdale in Druid Hills.
At the time, Atlantans considered Druid Hills the most upscale and affluent part of Atlanta – the “Buckhead of its day,” as Sam describes it. (Today, most of metro Atlanta’s 6 million-plus residents acknowledge Buckhead as the city’s most prestigious address. Buckhead lies north up Peachtree Road about four miles from the original city center famously torched by General Sherman in 1864.)
In Druid Hills, grand houses floated like galleons on green lots shaded by enormous oaks, poplars, and beeches. Several mansions belonged to the Candler family, scions of Asa Griggs Candler, the man who turned a $2,300 investment in a soda fountain drink called
At another home, Candlers operated a commercial zoo. (“The monkeys escaped one time,” Sam says.) That property also held a hatchery for commercial goldfish. Sam says he used to climb the fence and skinny dip.
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park in New York City, and his brother designed the 1,300-acre layout of the influential subdivision, including a series of lovely linear parks.
In one of the parks stretched along Peavine Creek, Buddy and his pals once met secretly to smoke a cigar butt. Buddy returned home pushing his bike, green around the gills, too dizzy to pedal. His grandmother took one whiff and, appalled, scolded him … but kept Buddy’s meeting with Mr. Nicotine just between the two of them.
Even in affluent Druid Hills, effects of the Depression showed. But by and large, families of the neighborhood rode out those hard years without enduring the bread-line and soup-kitchen agonies suffered by so many others in the nation.
“As a child, we’d see a peddler come to the neighborhood pushing a cart or buying rags or scrap metal,” Sam remembers. “But I just thought that was a normal business operation. I didn’t recognize that it might be a sign of depression or poverty. As a child I didn’t really know a depression was happening.”
Buddy lived happy childhood years in this comfortable, secure place with his family. He learned there many of the lessons he would employ for the rest of his days, absorbing them from his parents (and an especially beloved grandfather, Sol Rubin), from his neighborhood experiences, and from his school.
Buddy took in the lore and learning of his successful family like a little dark-haired sponge.
The Massells often gathered as a family, eating together southern-style, passing stories around the table with platters of fried chicken. After dishes cleared, the men retired to talk business and politics.
Once, while Buddy played on the floor, he heard his father and his grandfather exchange views on a local politician.
Well, said Sam Sr., at least he’s honest.
Buddy’s grandfather scoffed. Honest? Well that’s nothing – everybody is supposed to be honest!
“I never forgot hearing that,” Sam says. “It was just so simple. Honesty was the base line for a man. Honesty should be a given when it comes to a man’s character.”
That same grandfather heard on the radio one day an appeal for a charity that would, for as little as one dollar, run the name of a donor in the newspaper. Mr. Rubin sent a dollar in Buddy’s name, and sure enough, the next day the newspaper ran the charity’s long list of contributors.
“My grandfather said, Buddy you ought to cut that out and save it in your scrapbook. And I said okay,” Sam recalls. “And I did.
“I cut out just my name. Not one bit more of the article or the list. Just two words: Buddy Massell. And I pasted my name in my scrapbook.”
In future years, Sam Massell would get much better at collecting his memorabilia.
In Druid Hills, the Massells owned a Reo, a luxury car, and then a second Reo. They kept their vehicles parked in a garage in tandem, one in back of the other. The family home also had a servant’s quarters, a base of operations for a yard man, a cook, and a maid.
Under the back yard lay an oil tank that a noisy truck came to fill each year. The oil furnace kept the Massells warm during Atlanta’s occasional ice storms. If the oil dwindled, Buddy remembers that the whole family camped in the living room in front of a fireplace.
The Massells took a vacation to Jacksonville Beach every summer, driving both their cars, traveling all day. As years passed, they chose Tybee Island, near Savannah, just a four-hour trip.
Sam Sr. was a broad-minded, good-natured, industrious man who loved going to the Elks Club and playing a good game of cards. He equally loved frolicking in the yard with Shirley and Buddy and Howard, his children. Sam Sr. fathered mostly by example, going light on the lectures.
“Business was never pushed on me,” Sam says. “It just felt like part of growing up, part of being. It was just what you did. It felt to me as natural as breathing.”
Sam Sr. wanted the world to teach his children. He planted various flowering trees – cherry, apple, pear, peach – to prove to Buddy and his siblings that fruit came from branches, not stores. Family dogs frisked in the yard, family cats glared at them, and family homing pigeons raised in a cote next door flew over it all.
Sam Sr. grew strawberries and bushy blueberries, and he fought gamely to tame an unruly scuppernong arbor. He built a fine treehouse in the back yard for the kids. He bought an above-ground swimming pool, a place of constant splashing in hot Georgia summers. He kept a pen with chickens and turkeys. (Buddy dreaded Thanksgiving dinner at his house, always imagining one of his pets drumsticks-up on the platter at the center of the table.)
In the fall, Sam Sr. loved picking up pecans in the back yard and toasting them over an open fire while visitors dropped by to share stories. Sam’s father was fond of a joke, and made up plenty. He held an honorary position on the governor’s staff, and once wore his official uniform on a trip to Cuba.
Sam Sr. also seemed color blind, a rare quality down south at the height … or depth … of the Jim Crow era.
“My father gave titles to the black people who worked in our home,” Sam says. “Mr. Jackson or Mrs. Jefferson, like that. It was unusual. In those days, you could tell who was black or white in the directories because the blacks didn’t have Mr. or Mrs. in front of their names.”
Sam Sr.’s egalitarian example would turn out, in time, to be hugely important in his son’s life.
“My father was very friendly with the prominent black attorney A.T. Walden,” Sam says. “Dad called him Colonel Walden, and the Colonel later became president of the Atlanta Negro Voters League. He was a very powerful factor in local political campaigns.”
Buddy got his looks – his dark eyes and hair made him a prideful rake in the years before his marriage – from his mom, a beautiful brunette born to a prominent Jewish family in St. Louis.
Florence Rubin’s father had done extremely well in the retail apparel business in New York City, where he toodled the streets of Manhattan in a chauffeured vehicle. (Later on, Mr. Rubin, the grandfather that Sam so greatly admired, worked as a buyer for Rich’s, the landmark Atlanta department store – “back when a buyer was really important,” Sam says – and Mr. Rubin also served on the store’s board of directors.)
Mr. Rubin loved his daughter. And Sam loved his mother.
“My mother taught me many things about the importance of being polite and to smile while I was doing it,” Sam says. “My mother and father expected me to respect everybody, friend or foe or stranger.”
Buddy remembers his mom as warmhearted, sophisticated, gentle … and maybe a bit too solicitous, for his tastes, when it came to matters of health, comfort, and cleanliness. Sam didn’t really aspire to be the cleanest boy in Druid Hills. His mom also administered discipline with a pinch like a hot wasp sting, a substitute for spanking, which was forbidden in the Massell house.
Mrs. Massell, though a Jew, put up a Christmas tree during the holiday season. She taught her children the proper pronunciations and uses of words. (Vode Ville, not Vaudeville, Buddy correctly learned from her. As well, he continually heard the difference between continual and continuous, and he mastered pronunciation of the word often, with a silent ‘t’ in the Massell house.) Florence Massell emphasized well-bred, polite manners … and generosity.
Sam remembers his mother once getting out of the family car in front of Wender and Roberts Pharmacy in Buckhead. She saw a man nearby holding a cup. Thinking he needed help, she dropped in a few coins.
The man stared at her with his mouth open.
“Mom had made a donation to the
Buddy would also never forget the look on his Jewish mother’s face when he burst in one afternoon waving his hands, wildly excited about a new dish he’d just tasted at the Gellerstedt house.
Pork and beans! Buddy announced. Yum!
“Mom was absolutely horrified,” Sam recalls. “Just horrified.
“My mother was big on lamb chops and artichokes,” he says. “And sometimes a little caviar.”
“I thought pork and beans were wonderful.”
Sam’s favorite food to this day?
A hot dog.
That headlong blur of a boy, that Buddy Massell, was … how else to say it? A serial businessman.
The family work ethic … and something even deeper, down in the DNA or maybe in the murk of personal psychology … kept Buddy going and going. He was the unstoppable Energizer bunny before Energizer even had a brand.
In his senior yearbook at Druid Hills High School, the caption under Buddy’s class picture summed him up: Always has a checkbook and a harried look. Always busy.
Buddy sold flower and vegetable seeds door to door. He ran circulars for the man who owned a movie theatre in nearby Emory Village. He caddied at Druid Hills Golf Club. He played straight man in a magic act for a friend’s uncle (and learned a number of sleight-of-hand tricks he still performs).
Buddy Massell delivered Grit, the national newspaper that gave many youngsters a first taste of salesmanship … and an initial experience in collecting overdue payments from reluctant or dodgy or flat-broke customers. Later, Buddy had a route delivering The Atlanta Georgian, a daily city paper.
When one of his father’s flat-broke customers donated an ice-cream cart in lieu of cash as yet another settlement for legal services, Buddy sold tasty frozen treats on the streets.
Once, Buddy designed and built a fireworks stand in his yard – a venture that in latter-day Atlanta would likely have brought a squad in dress-blue uniforms swarming over the whole neighborhood … and maybe even a helicopter overhead.
He also tried his hand, briefly, at being a counterfeiter.
“In physics class, I made a plaster of Paris mold of a nickel. I melted some lead and poured five or six counterfeit coins. Remember, 30 cents was a lot of money back then.
“I only remember spending one nickel. I hid in the bushes waiting for the ice-cream vendor to come by, and I bought a cone. I had to get rid of that nickel quick. I found out that lead nickels turn black very fast.
Why did Buddy make counterfeit nickels?
“I just wanted to show I could do it. It was nothing more than a foolish kid’s prank. While my buddies were making lead soldiers, I was making lead nickels.
“I got out of the counterfeiting business after I poured scalding hot lead on my hand. I suppose it served me right.”
A burned hand didn’t slow Buddy Massell down for long. Neither did a case of measles, treated with calamine lotion. Nor did a series of 21 rabies shots, needed after he broke up a dog fight in his back yard and got a bite on the hand for his peacemaking. (Ironically, Sam would later become president of the Atlanta Humane Society.)
With his streak of cleverness, Sam found a way to appeal to customers in most any corner of his neighborhood.
Drivers in upscale Druid Hills coveted chrome fixtures for bumpers, spotlights, and mirrors on their cars. (Any scrap chrome went to the war effort.) Sam bought army-green side view mirrors and took them to Simmons Plating Company, run by distant relatives. The mirrors entered green, came out shiny silver.
“I sold those and made a good profit,” Sam recalls.
Whatever he did, Buddy never seemed to rest … or even grow weary. He didn’t have time. Too many ideas jousted in his mind.
He got more mail at the house than his lawyer father … at least for a while. Buddy had started a competition with a neighborhood friend, Donald Chait, running direct mail businesses from their houses. For the princely sum (in those times) of a quarter, both entrepreneurs promised customers “big mailings,” as Buddy put it – systematically delivered oversized envelopes stuffed fat with advertisements and circulars, flyers and coupons.
Don Chait named his business Super Mail.
Buddy called his venture Super Colossal Mail.
“We did not,” Sam says, “get rich on it.”
Oh well. Buddy simply followed the old adage: Try, try again.
He launched Massell Stamp Company, “with letterhead and all,” he says. Buddy learned how to buy foreign stamps and U.S. commemoratives wholesale. He advertised in a little stamp magazine and “made a good business out of selling censored covers.”
In philately (stamp collecting), collectors covet first day covers, stamps postmarked on the same day the U.S. Postal Service issues them. Philatelists also value oddities, like the famous Inverted Jenny 24-cent stamp mistakenly issued in 1918, then urgently recalled after the postal service found the Curtiss JN-4 biplane (called a “Jenny”) on the stamp had been printed upside-down. Despite the recall, about 100 of the stamps slipped into circulation. Their rarity made them instantly collectible … and extremely valuable.
Sam figured out a way to create his own oddities. He bought 6-cent stamps, cut them diagonally in half, placed them onto envelopes, and mailed them to himself. A few of the half-stamps, at the existing three-cent postal fee, made it through the post office … with a government postmark. Presto! Instant collector’s item.
“There has always been part of a merchant in my psyche, and I truly believed that it was possible to make trades in which everyone is happy,” Sam says. “It became a guiding principle in my life.”
Through trial and error in these boyhood ventures, Buddy Massell developed the formula a grown-up Sam Massell would also use in real estate, politics, travel/tourism, and in handling varied tasks as head of the Buckhead Coalition.
“I create,” Sam says. “That starts with an idea, whether it’s mine … or one I’ve borrowed somewhere.
“Then I execute. An idea is worthless without hard work behind it.
“Then I report,” Sam says. “A lot of people leave that important step out. I always report results to people or the media, confirming an achievement, getting notoriety.
“I care who gets credit. Getting credit for one thing makes it easier to do the next thing.”
Along with family influences and neighborhood experiences, one other great crucible molded Buddy Massell.
For starters, school let him discover the real world around him.
“Druid Hills School was a county school, and as such it had school buses that went out to rural areas to pick up barefoot kids in blue jeans,” Sam says. “At the same time, we also had the typical Druid Hills chauffeur-driven kids in limousines.
“We all played together and studied together. The experience was, for me, a great teacher of humanity. Of course like most schools back then, Druid Hills School was racially segregated. I would learn about African Americans other ways.
“Developing a sensitivity toward people from different walks of life helped me later with the broader community and in my political career.”
Especially during high school, significant events took place that taught … and shaped … young Buddy.
One of the most important came in 1942 in Buddy’s junior year at Druid Hills High School. A charismatic classmate named Charlie Goldstein decided to run for school president. Goldstein asked Buddy, age 14, to help with the election campaign.
Buddy actually pondered long and hard before answering. Unbelievably, he thought of himself as “shy” (Sam’s word) at that time of life, an introvert well hidden inside the busybody smokescreen he manufactured for the rest of the world to see.
What would a psychologist make of this? That perhaps Buddy kept up a hyperactive lifestyle as a kind of overcompensation, a way to make up for a lack of confidence at the time with girls or with grades? (Sam fully confesses to being “a mediocre student.”)
Or was it possible that the sky-high successes of all the adult Massell family left Buddy a little insecure that he might ever measure up to their standard, that he held anything close to the same potential?
“The truth is that it was a period when I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence,” Sam says. “I didn’t even ask for dates. I didn’t think girls would return my calls.”
Youthful pranks and any flirtation with the wild side of life ended on the night of one of his high-school proms. Two of his bad-boy friends urged Buddy to skip the dance and jump on a freight train with them, to ride it wherever it went.
Sam chose the dance.
“I liked those guys, but they were always doing bad things,” Sam says. “I knew that their kind of devilment was wrong, and I moved in a different direction.”
So … despite some deep personal misgivings and the tug of iffy companionships, Buddy said yes to Goldstein and joined the student election campaign.
“Even an introvert can paint a sign,” Sam says. “And I could draw and paint. All over my back yard and driveway I got down on my hands and knees and hand-painted signs that said Goldstein for President. I did a pretty good job.”
The popular Goldstein won the election. Under school by-laws, the school president could appoint the other officers he wanted to serve with him. To Buddy’s complete surprise, Goldstein tapped him as the new school treasurer.
Goldstein, who now lives in Miami, says Buddy was a very easy choice.
“Sam radiated a warmth that people naturally responded to,” says Goldstein. “He had a special quality.”
Goldstein teasingly suggests that his protégé’s charm got him “a lot of passes” in his classes.
Goldstein also doesn’t remember Buddy as much of an introvert.
“He was voted the best dancer in the class,” Goldstein says. “He must have overcome being an introvert by going to classes at Arthur Murray dance studios.”
As Goldstein tells it, Buddy’s contributions to his election campaign went far beyond painting signs.
“Sam initiated a number of ideas that contributed to a successful election,” Goldstein says.
Buddy’s ideas, again. Time and again they would serve him at a turning point in his life.
“Frankly,” Sam recalls, “I attribute that moment at Druid Hills to being the point I really became interested in politics. I honestly believe that election helped me overcome a lack of confidence in myself.
“I don’t know if it was the power, or just finding out I could do it. Anyway, there was no turning back. I never looked over my shoulder again. I’ve been running ever since.”
One other incident went even deeper … and did even more to anchor the embryonic ego inside Buddy.
Jewish kids at Druid Hills High School ran their own fraternity, The Top Hat Club. (Other high school fraternities did not accept Jews.) Buddy actively served. He edited the newspaper for Top Hat, and he eagerly anticipated the club’s annual black-tie dinner that included, as he puts it, “a speaker … and maybe even after-dinner cigars.”
In Buddy’s momentous junior year, the club hosted a Top Hat banquet speaker named Dr. Alfred A. Weinstein. The doctor, who practiced general medicine and taught surgery at Emory Hospital, had returned home from three harrowing years as a World War II prisoner of war under the Japanese army. (Weinstein’s 1948 account of the incarceration, The Barbed Wire Surgeon, became a best-selling book.)
That evening talk by Dr. Weinstein powerfully influenced Buddy’s life.
“When I was a teen-ager,” Sam confesses, “I went through a period of being … what? … disappointed? Or embarrassed? … about being Jewish. I remember asking, Why me, God?”
Buddy Massell attended high school during WWII. Though the conflict seemed far away to high school kids, disturbing stories filtered out of Europe about the persecution of Jews. Some Jewish families in Atlanta mysteriously lost contact with relatives back in the Old World. Buddy’s ethnicity felt confusing, isolating. Being Jewish felt blameworthy somehow, troubling.
Dr. Weinstein’s subject that evening sat Buddy up straight. It focused less on wartime suffering than on being Jewish.
“I remember it like yesterday,” Sam says. “Dr. Weinstein told us that because he was Jewish, he had to try twice as hard as other kids to get into medical school. He told us that because he was Jewish, he had to try twice as hard as other kids to pass his boards.
“And then he said, You know what I got for trying twice as hard?
“Being Jewish made me twice as good.”
Sam says a light bulb came on.
“That made sense. If that’s all I needed to do – just be twice as good – why I’d just be Jewish.
“It set me at ease.”
A newly liberated, freshly buoyant Buddy Massell took to high school life like a duck to water – an adrenalized duck. He poured the same amazing energy into his many ventures at Druid Hills High that he poured into his infinity of projects in the old neighborhood.
Buddy seemed everywhere at once.
He served on the student council. He started a bowling league, where he set up the pins as president, naturally. He started a philatelic league. One day a week, he operated a little sundries business out of a closet off one of the school corridors, selling pens and notebooks and other school supplies. He had a counter designed and built for this hallway business “so I would look like an operator,” he says.
The bottom line on his high-school involvement with groups? “If I couldn’t join a club,” Sam remembers, “I would start one.”
At 16, he inherited his first car, a blue Packard convertible, from his big sister, who got it new on her own 16th birthday.
Buddy proudly kept the Packard in tip-top shape, adding accessories – a pull-down map, turn signals, even a big brass bell – and lovingly tending the car’s good looks as though they were his own. Perched confidently behind the wheel of the vehicle, he cut quite a figure among his peers, if not with school administrators. (Somehow, after one night’s social event, Buddy managed to back his Packard into the car of the high school principal.)
Even so, things were going very well … so well that Buddy even let a little snowballing chutzpah get the best of him.
Somehow, the youngster received an invitation from Who’s Who in America, an organization that lists prominent citizens along with their accomplishments. At the time, many (especially those in the publication) considered Who’s Who a sort of A-list for social climbers.
Buddy excitedly, ambitiously, contributed a very lengthy bio, naming such lofty achievements as his appointment as Treasurer of the Student Body at Druid Hills High School.
On publication of the new Who’s Who volume, Buddy Massell’s very lengthy claim to fame appeared next to another Massell’s – Ben’s.
Ben Massell, the multimillionaire developer. His rich, famous uncle.
“I just couldn’t believe mine was so much longer and so insignificant,” says an embarrassed Sam many decades later. “I just couldn’t stand it.”
Buddy’s boundless exuberance played against him at least one other time.
He performed – briefly – in the high school band.
His band instructor, apparently believing a long-term career would best be served by preserving a pair of healthy eardrums, kicked Buddy out of band “for playing too loud,” as Sam recalls.
Buddy also simultaneously put his naivety … and his commitment to performance and excellence … on full display.
As editor of the Top Hat Club’s newspaper, the young watchdog felt a beholden duty to report the news. Honesty was a person’s base line, after all.
The news in one issue created controversy. One of Sam’s classmates served as Top Hat treasurer. Or … at least he held that position. The callow young office-holder showed up meeting after meeting without bothering to produce a treasurer’s report.
Even in his teens, Buddy considered the management of finances a deeply serious matter. After all, he had run a dozen small businesses by this time. Buddy researched the fraternity by-laws, finding they spelled out in absolutely clear language what was required when an officer neglected his defined duty.
Buddy wrote an editorial for the next issue of the newspaper requesting, point-blank, the impeachment of the treasurer of the Top Hat Club.
“That boy’s father went ballistic,” Sam recalls. “He rushed to the post office and had every one of those newspapers impounded.”
This particular aggrieved father certainly had the clout … and suddenly the motivation … to burst into the post office and stop newspaper deliveries. As president and chief executive officer of Atlantic Envelope Company, a venerated and prestigious Atlanta firm since 1893, the fuming gentleman had little patience with seeing the family name sullied … and his son disgraced.
That storm passed. Top Hat survived. Buddy survived. The press put out more newspapers. Lives went on.
Then, not long after, Buddy faced a crossroads decision.
His dad looked into enrolling him at Georgia Military Academy (today Woodward Academy). The idea was that Buddy could take a preparatory curriculum almost certainly leading to an enrollment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Florence Rubin Massell drove her son to a meeting with Col. Brewster, the academy’s headmaster.
“Mr. Brewster told me,” Sam says, “that he would enroll me in the school immediately if I agreed to pass up my senior year at Druid Hills.”
The headmaster’s office had no air conditioning. The headmaster’s chair squeaked. Sam sweated. He remembered that he’d been with his classmates for 10 years.
“There was no way in the world I would leave them,” he decided.
It remains the road not taken, for Sam Massell. To this day, he wonders what his life might have been like had he entered that spit-polished world of salutes and strategy.
“My whole life changed,” Sam says today, “because I didn’t try.”
Buddy’s worst moment in high school occurred not too many months later – the umpteenth salient moment of those formative educational years.
It happened more than 70 years ago, and Sam says he honestly can’t dredge up from memory the particular reason he found himself in trouble. Whatever the misdeed, young Buddy Massell found himself a week before graduation day in 1944 confronted by Hayden C. Bryant, the severe principal of Druid Hills High School.
“He hollered at me, Buddy you’ll never amount to anything! I can still see his long finger wagging in my face.”
Sam Massell has a good idea what that last lecture of his high school career taught him.
“That certainly may be,” he says, “the challenge I’ve been answering all my life.”