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Manuel J. Maloof

Obituary
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Manuel J. Maloof, the profane, hot-tempered and big-hearted barkeep who rose from obscurity to head one of metro Atlanta's largest governments, died early Saturday.

The former DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer and Commission Chairman died at 5:30 a.m. of cardiac arrest at Emory University Hospital. He was 80 years old.

Maloof, who'd been admitted to the hospital multiple times in the past 16 years for complications from diabetes, had gone to the hospital a week ago, Elaine Nachman, a family friend, said.

Funeral arrangements are pending. A.S. Turner & Sons is in charge of arrangements.

Mr. Maloof's death marks the passing of an era in Georgia politics before elected office-seekers became pasteurized by image consultants and focus groups. Mr. Maloof, who rarely wore a tie, was known for his public tirades and his "What the hell do you want?"— or worse — retorts to other elected officials seeking an audience or reporters wanting interviews with him.

Mr. Maloof ruled a pair of unlikely domains: on the one hand as the Democratic chief executive officer of the $213 million-a-year DeKalb County government, and on the other as the principal owner of Manuel's Tavern on North Highland Avenue.

As DeKalb CEO from 1985 to 1992, commission chairman from 1980-84 and a commissioner from 1974-78, Mr. Maloof played a central role in the transformation of DeKalb County from bedroom Republican suburb to the urbanized Democratic stronghold it is today. Known as "the godfather of the DeKalb Democratic Party," Mr. Maloof sometimes wrote personal checks to cover the party's expenses.

He built his "store," as he called it — one of three he owned in metro Atlanta — into a landmark watering hole for police, reporters, intellectuals and politicians of all stripes. For Democratic presidential wannabees, Manuel's Tavern was must-stop on their Georgia primary tours.

Bill Clinton came to Manuel's Tavern in 1992 and apparently liked the food so much he ordered fettucine Alfredo and a chicken quesadilla in one sitting. Emory professor Thomas J.J. Altizer, who coined the phrase "God is Dead," discussed his philosophy at length with Mr. Maloof long before it headlined in Time magazine.

(Mr. Maloof, something of a philosopher himself, often said, "Anybody don't like this life is crazy," an aphorism printed on menus and T-shirts at Manuel's.)

Mr. Maloof ran both his bar and his government in an autocratic style. At the tavern, he hired waiters, not waitresses, never played music except for his favorite opera records, and, notably, forbade audible cussing. He emblazoned the walls with his national Democratic heroes and pasted the face of a local Republican nemesis on a toilet seat.

As commission chairman and CEO, Mr. Maloof was often blunt, confrontational and prone to angry outbursts. When Gwinnett residents failed to approve sales tax hikes to extend MARTA into their county, Mr. Maloof proposed charging Gwinnett drivers to park in MARTA park-and-ride lots in DeKalb and altering the route of the MARTA north rail line away from Doraville, the closest DeKalb location for Gwinnett riders to take the train.

In 1981, on his first day as DeKalb Commission Chairman, Mr. Maloof set off the fire alarm just to see how long it would take for the fire department to get there. When he evacuated the building, he ordered county employees to get off the grass.

In December 1976, after chairman-elect Walt Russell accused him of a power grab for pushing to strip the chairman of some appointive powers, Mr. Maloof stormed out of a dinner with fellow commissioners saying, "I don't need this job." In June 1983, during a routine public meeting, he abruptly resigned during an argument with then-Commissioner Liane Levetan over a minor court-appointment.

In both instances, Mr. Maloof quickly returned to his post with profuse apologies.

Said Mr. Maloof 15 minutes after his confrontation with Ms. Levetan:

"Let me apologize to everyone at the hearing for my behavior awhile ago. I recognize that government can't be run that way. I feel sad about the way I did it, and I apologize. Whatever I said, strike it from the record."

Mr. Maloof's tirades offended many and endeared him to others who considered them a sign of refreshing honesty in a politician.

Larry Schneider, DeKalb's public defender, said in 1992, "Every time I walk into Manuel's office, he says, 'Hello, you son of a bitch.' I have always taken this to mean he likes me."

Mr. Maloof proved to be very popular. He was the first DeKalb chief executive to gain re-election in the county's multi-commission era, dating to 1956. His electability gave the government of the suburban county of 530,000 a continuity it needed for growth early in his chairmanship. Later, it provided stability when growth in the county tailed off.

He also served as chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, a metro planning group, and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia.

Mr. Maloof proved to be a survivor in politics and in overcoming lifelong health problems. Twice prematurely administered last rites for complications stemming from diabetes, he survived a recall attempt in 1982 that failed because of a shortage of petition signatures.

In 1984, he was cleared of charges of impropriety after he used off-duty county laborers to repair a sewer line at hishouse. He admitted it was a mistake and said he had paid the laborers.

In 1985, he was cleared by the state Campaign and Financial Disclosure Commission after campaign aides had left a $10,000 loan off a disclosure statement; the mistake was later corrected and the loan disclosed.

"I'd be a liar to say I don't enjoy doing this job," Mr. Maloof said in 1981 while DeKalb chairman. "I guess the only thing I don't like about it is the exposure I get. Most people think I'm sort of a publicity hound. But I really don't like to be in the limelight. I like to see things get done. I'm a nut on that."

He was a mercurial figure, often moody and insecure because he felt he never fit in.

"He has labored under the feeling that in a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant county, he is not quite white and he is not quite moral," said Mr. Maloof's friend and political ally, James A. Mackay, in 1981.

"Who would ever believe a bartender, a Lebanese, a Catholic, someone as ugly as me, could get elected in conservative DeKalb County?" Mr. Maloof, an immigrant's son who never went to college, once asked.

Manuel Joseph Maloof was born, in Atlanta, the second of seven children of Gibran "Brownie" Maloof and Lillian Shikany Maloof. He was born on Hunter Street; the family later moved to Grant Park. His father had emigrated from Lebanon in 1907; his mother was born in Savannah to Lebanese parents.

Brownie Maloof operated the Tip Top Billiard Parlor in downtown Atlanta across the street from the Fulton Courthouse. Judges and lawyers frequented the parlor. The young Manuel Maloof worked there as a child and delivered the now-defunct Atlanta Georgian newspaper. A sickly child who suffered from a condition called himaihyperthy — one side of his body was larger than the other, and he wore a thick-soled shoe to compensate for it — Manuel Maloof was tops in competitions among Georgian newsboys and won trips to New York City and Cuba. He attended Tech High.

During World War II,he was an Army Air Forces mechanic and mess sergeant, stateside and in England, where he met hiswife, Dolly Green.

After the war, he worked for his father for awhile, was a beer distributor for three years and operated a grocery store for five years, going in debt $50,000. In 1956, he scraped together a $4,500 down payment and bought Harry's Delicatessen on Highland Avenue; the total price was $11,000. It was in Fulton County, just outside then-dry DeKalb, and became the only tavern near the Emory campus. It thrived, and its role as a reporters' hangout helped make Mr. Maloof a local celebrity, spurring his political career.

In 1968-69, Paul Hemphill, a popular columnist for The Atlanta Journal, drank at Manuel's Tavern and wrote columns that made the proprietor into a local folk hero. Mr. Maloof was portrayed as a bartender-philosopher and a talented organizer of political protests. In December 1965, Mr. Maloof had organized 16 other tavern operators to successfully protest a move by the Atlanta Board of Aldermen to raise the Atlanta beer license fee from $144 to $750.

Once Mr. Maloof chartered a bus to take customers to a pro-Vietnam War rally. But there he found other customers of his protesting the war. "We could have chartered two buses and brought everybody," Mr. Maloof said.

He became prominent in DeKalb Democratic politics and vice chairman of the county committee. For a few months in 1970, he was chairman of the DeKalb Community Relations Commission.

Richard Nixon's victory over George McGovern in 1972 seemed a foregone conclusion, and no DeKalb Democrat would risk running on the party ticket for a commissioner post that was up that year. Mr. Maloof talked to "about 150 people," he estimated, trying to get them to enter the race. Minutes before filing deadline, Mr. Maloof himself became a candidate.

During the campaign, he and incumbent A.C. "Bob" Guhl, DeKalb's first Republican commissioner and the man whose face Mr. Maloof slapped on a tavern toilet seat, swapped insults.

Mr. Maloof lost that election, But he tried again in 1974 and won. He served on the commission until 1978. In 1980 Mr. Maloof defeated incumbent commission chairman Walt Russell. During his first term as chairman, the county changed its form of government to one headed by a chief executive officer.

Mr. Maloof defeated Ms. Levetan in the first DeKalb election for CEO in 1984. He sought and won re-election in 1988.

In May 1989, DeKalb County named its six-story county administration building and its annex the Manuel J. Maloof Center for DeKalb County Governmental Administration. Mr. Maloof served as CEO until December 1992.

Among other achievements, he is credited with pushing through the construction of the interstate cloverleaf known as Spaghetti Junction at I-85 and I-285 and for expanding the number of minorities and women in top government positions.

But Mr. Maloof struggled with finding new revenue sources to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of needed capital improvements. He was plagued by a growing crime rate that led to an explosion in criminal justice costs. At a 2001 gathering of former heads of DeKalb's government, Mr. Maloof lamented that unforeseen costs created by the epidemics of AIDS and "crack cocaine," "hit us like a ton of bricks."

"Those things drove us absolutely nuts as far as the cost of government and deterred us from being able to spend the kind of time we needed to spend on things of a more positive nature," he said. "I wish it could have been better."

Even so, he said he never regretted entering public life.

"I have seen the word 'politician' denigrated to where a lot of people treat it as something that's pretty dirty," he said at the same public gathering. "Never in my life did I ever think like that. To have the people trust you enough to elect you to be responsible for running government to me was about the ultimate achievement that a person could have."

Survivors include his wife, Dolly Maloof; a daughter, Christine Kempton of Atlanta; six sons: Brian M. Maloof, W. Michael Maloof, Gregory T. Maloof, Manuel J. "Jerry" Maloof and David R. Maloof, all of Atlanta, and John M. Maloof of St. Simons Island; two sisters, Beverly Ann Hiegel of Plano, Texas, and Margaret MacKool of Atlanta; a brother, Robert Maloof of Atlanta; and 16 grandchildren.
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Aug. 7, 2004
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