Published on November 18th, 2015 |1
Commercial Realtor’s diversity unit rightly honors Steve Selig’s life
So, it was fitting that Selig, CEO of Atlanta-based Selig Enterprises, was honored Tuesday (Nov. 17) by the Atlanta Commercial Board of Realtors’ Diversity Committee as its featured speaker at the 2015 Commercial Real Estate Studio event.
Even more fitting, the event was held at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, The Selig Center and that his son Scott Selig, vice president of Selig Enterprises and board member of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, was the moderator for the program.
The moderator and the place for the event represented two of the most important elements in Selig’s life—family and faith. The audience represented two other important elements in his life story—business and friends.
“Life is like a five-legged stool,” Selig told the audience of commercial real estate professionals: family, friends, faith, business and community. All are important to him, but family is the most important, both he and his son agreed.
The program opened with a fitting video tribute to “Papa” from his (I think I counted 10) grandchildren, singing a song and dancing and paying tribute to a man who flies back from a meeting in Israel to attend a grandchild’s ballgame and even occasionally misses a Georgia football game for the same reason.
Scott said of his father, “He is about the most diverse person I know.” And, Scott told the audience that he hears all the time that he has big shoes to fill. “Some shoes are meant to just sit on a shelf and be admired,” he added.
Referencing some good fortune in his life story, Selig quoted legendary Atlanta business leader Erwin Zaban, who died in 2010. He said Zaban told
him early on, “It is much easier to cross home plate when you are born on second base.” Selig added, “I was born on second base.”
Selig told the audience, which included a number of his family members—both relatives and business family, “My grandfather Ben Massell was responsible for starting Atlanta’s skyline.”
And, he added, his mother and father also were prominently involved in the community.
Selig said was fortunate and attended Westminster Schools and worked hard at sports and was popular. He passed up football scholarships and went to college at the University of Georgia, where his first year roommate was Griffin Bell, next door was a Talmadge and he met Hamilton Jordan.
Thoughts of being a politician began and ended at UGA, where he was voted class treasurer his first three years, but lost his election bid to become senior class president. Instead he became chief judge of the student court.
He referred to his time at UGA as “a great four years for me.” And UGA has benefitted from that. “We have spent a lot of our time and treasury at Georgia. Nothing else except family get people so passionate as their college loyalty.”
But let’s turn to some of the discrimination Selig faced in his life that formed his commitments and life’s courses.
The first case happened during high school at Westmister and involved his girlfriend at the time. She was from a prominent family and was coming out as a debutante and the event would be at the Piedmont Driving Club, where Jewish people could not be members.
Selig said her family forbid her to date Steve because he was Jewish. But Selig had his friends pick her up for him and the still met up for dates. In the end, the relationship did not last.
In college at UGA, he faced discrimination for the second time. There was a Jewish fraternity rush and and a regular rush. He wanted to rush SAE, because his best friend was a member. But he was told by his friend that he was not allowed to join. That was in 1961.
The third story of discrimination Selig relayed to the audience to place much more recently after he had gained fame and fortune as a powerful leader in Atlanta’s commercial real estate business.
Selig was asked to join the board of the Lovett School. With his loyalties to Westminster Schools, where he had graduated from, he first went to a friend there if it was okay with Westminster for him to join the Lovett board. He was told to do it, because, at the time, Westminster would not allow him to be on its board because he was Jewish.
Years later, a group from Westminster met with him and asked for a large donation, which might have even involved having a building named after him. Selig asked the group, which included Ivan Allen III, “Do you know what hutzpah is? Well, you certainly have hutzpah.”
Selig told the audience, that Ivan Allen III, looking down at his shoes said, “Steve, change happens slowly.” Selig now is on the Westminster Schools board.
By 1986 when his father died in an auto accident and he was forced to take over the business and run the family foundation as well, Selig had experienced an diverse and exciting life after finishing college.
He had worked for a year for Bert Lance at the National Bank of Georgia. He had gained a reputation of being a good fundraiser. He joined Jimmy Carter’s first presidential campaign as part of the Peanut Brigade raising campaign funds. He was asked to go to Washington at age 33 to be treasurer for the inauguration
From that he was asked to be deputy assistant to the President in the White House. He told the audience he was proud of the motto “We told the truth and kept the peace.” He spoke of playing tennis with Ham Jordan on the White House tennis court dubbed “The Supreme Court.”
And, he spoke of two “signature events” during the Carter White House years that he was involved with: the Camp David Peace Accords (which is still in effect) and the White House Conference on Small Business, which took him to 30-40 states speaking on behalf of the President.
He talked about his role with the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, which he said, “Was my last foray as a Democrat. And, his foray into the music and events business with Peter Conlon and Alex Cooley with a business named Southern Promotions, which began in place at Paces Apartments. They started Music Midtown before he got out of the business.
“In the real estate business, we mostly like each other,” Selig said, “but the music business is just cut-throat.”
When he took over the family foundation, after the death of his mother and father, he got heavily involved with the Jewish Federation, which he referred to as “the mother ship.”
“It is always the few that carry the many,” Selig told the commercial realtors. As head of the Federation’s fund campaign, Selig went to 50 cities in two years and the Federation raised $2 billion.
He offered a few words of sage advice for the diverse audience Tuesday: “Do what you do well and don’t envy the other guy.”
There are real examples all over the Southeast that Steve Selig has done what he does well in real estate, philanthropy, relationships, leadership and in family. Just think of all those grandchildren’s ball games, rehearsals, school events Papa loves to attend.
Asked what he hopes people will say about him, Selig responded: “Damn he looks good for his age.”