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A new role for Mr. Poultry
Position change is not retirement, Massey insists
Abit Massey, left, passes a ceremonial drumstick to Mike Giles, who will succeed Massey as president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. - photo by Tom Reed

In 1960, Gainesville attorney W.L. Norton was helping his client, the Georgia Poultry Federation, look for a new executive. He saw his friend, Abit Massey, who was then head of the state Department of Commerce.

After Massey provided Norton with a couple of names, the two men shook hands and began to walk off. "Hey, put my name in that hat," Massey called backed to Norton as they parted.

Norton did, and the rest is history. Massey has been at the helm of the Georgia Poultry Federation for 48 years. Saturday night in Young Harris, the federation announced that Massey was taking a promotion to president-emeritus, effective Jan. 1.

"I haven't reached retirement age, yet," he told The Times in an interview this week. Massey's age is a secret as guarded as the formula for Coca-Cola.

He will be succeeded by Mike Giles, who is senior vice president of the federation. Yet Massey said he plans to continue to work full time in his new position.

Massey is the dean of the state's lobbyist corps. He was there when the number of lobbyists was in the dozens, representing the state's big banks, utilities and railroads. Now there are more than 1,300 registered lobbyists representing an assortment of interests.

Most of them know Massey, and what's amazing is that he knows them by name. On a day when the halls of the Capitol are packed with special interest groups and school children, Massey can't walk more than a couple of steps without someone shaking his hand.

His friends at the Capitol are not just the elite; he knows security guards, janitors and doorkeepers, and they know him.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle called Massey an icon at the Capitol. "Abit is someone who is admired and respected for the way he operates with honesty and class," Cagle said, adding that the state is a better place because of him.

Giles said Massey has a different approach about people. "Relationships are important in lobbying, but Abit genuinely enjoys meeting people and being their friend," Giles said. "It's in his nature."

Massey has enjoyed much success as a lobbyist. However, he recalls the one time he could not use his powers of persuasion with desired results. During the administration of Gov. Ernest Vandiver, Massey headed the Commerce department, now the Department of Economic Development.

A former president of the Georgia Jaycees, Massey received a call from the Columbus Jaycees, sponsor of the annual Miss Georgia pageant. A new Miss Georgia has been selected and they wanted to bring her to Atlanta to meet Vandiver.

Kayanne Shoffner, a beautiful blonde from Calhoun, walked into Massey's first floor office in the Capitol. Something magical happened, and within a short time they went on their first date, with Kayanne's mother as the chaperone, as required by the Miss America program.

A few months later, Kayanne came to Gainesville for an event for the Community Chest, which later became United Way. Abit, who was at a speaking engagement in South Georgia, tried to reach her at the Dixie Hunt hotel.

Hotel management refused to interrupt the reigning Miss Georgia, who was having dinner in the hotel dining room and later refused to ring her room.

"It's one of my few absolute failures as a lobbyist," Massey said.

After the completion of Kayanne's term as Miss Georgia, the couple were married and Abit began his work with the Georgia Poultry Federation.

Massey has been an avid supporter of his alma mater, the University of Georgia, and served as president of its alumni association.

He has an incredible capacity to recall people, names and places. While he has mastered the technology of the personal digital assistant, tell him a phone number and he'll remember it. He often makes speeches of 20 to 30 minutes filled with facts and figures and never uses a single reference note.

"I try to remember things that interest me," he said.

Asked how many friends he has, he replied, "a lot, I hope."

Asked if he knew someone in all of Georgia's 159 counties, he said, "probably."

In younger days, Massey said he was encouraged to seek political office and gave it some thought. His son, Lewis, was an aide to Gov. Joe Frank Harris and Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard and was appointed and later elected Secretary of State. He ran unsuccessfully in a 1998 bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.

"It was his own decision, but we put on our running shoes when he ran," Abit Massey said. "It was exciting."

A daughter, Camille, is a human rights attorney and lives in New York City. "I'm pleased that both of them are involved with public and community service," he said.

The decision to leave the post he has held for 48 years was made easier because of Giles, who will become president of the federation next year.

"It would be difficult if it were a walk-away retirement rather than just a change of positions. I still have the zest for the job that I did on the first day," he said.