About the only thing missing from Michael Towbes’s memorial send-off at the Granada Theatre was a 21-gun salute. Headlining the choir of voices giving tribute to Santa Barbara’s most successful developer, banker, and philanthropist was California Governor Jerry Brown, who described Towbes — who died last month of pancreatic cancer — as “a helluva human being.” Brown said he was initially struck by Towbes’s “warmth and elegance” upon encountering him at a political fundraiser that Towbes, a Democrat, organized on his behalf at the Fess Parker DoubleTree Resort when running for governor six years ago. “I also appreciated how easily he gave me money,” Brown said, noting that most donors require nudging and cajoling. “He was a person of means, of course, but also of taste, a person who knew what quality was,” adding, “He was a very special man.” Brown’s press office stated that the governor traveled to Santa Barbara specifically to attend Towbes’s memorial service. Since 2006, an initial scan of state campaign records indicate Towbes donated $66,000 to Brown’s election campaigns.
Brown was clearly the most famous of speakers at Towbes’s memorial celebration. Towbes was also remembered glowingly by Cottage Hospital CEO Ron Werft, Sage Publications founder Sara Miller McCune, TV news personality Jeff Greenfield, longtime friend Peter Jordano, and a host of family members including two daughters and his wife Anne Towbes. It would be Towbes’s youngest daughter, Carrie Towbes, who got everyone in the packed theater out of their seats and dancing along to the 1970s disco hit “YMCA” by the Village People. Many sang along, too. Towbes, it turns out, was a better-than-average dancer, and his favorite song to dance to, his daughter revealed, was “YMCA.” Who knew?
This was a side to Michael Towbes that many in the room did not know. During his 60 years doing business in Santa Barbara, Towbes cast an elegant, if austere, shadow. He was both reserved and ubiquitous, always impeccably dressed, quietly driven, awesomely disciplined, ever gracious, famously never flustered, and, even more famously, a man of few words. Over the years, Towbes morphed from mere mortal into community icon. For some, that could be a little intimidating. Even Rob Pearson, who just retired after an exceptionally accomplished career as head of Santa Barbara’s city Housing Authority, said he only recently had became comfortable addressing Towbes as anything but “Mr. Towbes.” Pearson was not alone. But whether it was “Mr. Towbes” or “MT” — as Towbes was known at the offices of the Towbes Group — Eugene Michael Towbes, the son of Thelma and Louis from Washington, D.C., proved astonishingly successful first as a developer, then as a banker, and lastly as a force of philanthropy.
At last count, The Towbes Group — the construction company he founded — had built more than 6,000 homes and about 1.8 million square feet of shopping malls, office buildings, and business parks in the tri-county area. Long before other developers discovered rental housing was worth the risk, Towbes was building apartments. He built solid, well-crafted, well-maintained dwellings designed to be affordable to those in the middle-income bracket. In addition to the housing it built, Towbes’s company manages another 2,500 units. Montecito Bank & Trust — otherwise known as the Bank of Towbes — has assets of $1.3 billion, making it the largest privately held bank in the Central Coast.
It would take a squad of accountants to divine the precise amount the philanthropic Towbes has donated over the years, but it’s in the many millions. He’s served on the board of at least 33 nonprofit organizations. Towbes gave of his time and money because he liked it, he said. It was fun. And it made for a stronger community. He challenged — by example — others in the business community to give and strongly encouraged a spirit of volunteerism among his own employees.
Were it not for Towbes’s investment money — at least $10 million — time, and expertise, the Granada Theatre would never have become the performing arts center it is today. His generosity has been massively felt over the years at such major institutions as UCSB, Cottage Health, and Santa Barbara Community College. But it’s been felt by a myriad of smaller nonprofits, as well — beneficiaries of the Community Dividends program started by Montecito Bank & Trust in 2003, in which Towbes and the bank made 100 donations of $10,000 each to different organizations right around Thanksgiving. “Some donors make massive gifts to one or two major institutions; others spread it out to lots of different groups,” commented Geoff Green, now with the City College Foundation, on whose board Towbes served. “What was so uniquely Towbsian is that he did both; he made massive gifts over the years both ways.”
Tuesday’s event reinforced much of what people already knew about the man; he grew up the descendent of Jewish immigrants from Russia in Washington, D.C., attended Princeton, went to MIT for one year, and joined the U.S. Navy as a civil engineer in 1952. Accomplished and dashing, he was assigned to Pt. Mugu, where he met his first wife, Gail Aronson, then an aspiring dancer. In 1956, he partnered with Eli Luria — whose parents were friends with Towbes’s — and began building homes. Luria would develop much of the housing around City College, and Towbes would move to Santa Maria, where he bought lots for $7,000 on which he built homes that he sold for $30,000. In 1960 Towbes went out on his own and began building shopping malls, tract homes, and rental housing, many in Goleta. His eye was on the market.
Even as Goleta became engulfed by the slow-growth, no-growth environmentalism of the 1970s, Towbes managed to stay above the fray and below the line of fire. His reputation was that of a tough, smart businessperson — formidable but fair. Towbes, whose father was a lawyer and a developer, was not reluctant to push. But he kept his word, unlike some. Builders, he would say, were not responsible for all the babies being born. But unlike many developers, Towbes did not waste his breath excoriating the environmental review process.
Part of the Michael Towbes on display at the Granada Theatre was the epically energetic work fiend of Towbes lore, the compulsive editor famous for the ubiquitous red pen he always wielded. There was a frisky, playful side, too — the Mike Towbes who showed up at a black-tie fundraiser for the Pacific Pride Foundation with his second wife, Anne Towbes, wearing a studded dog collar and leash. He went to Burning Man. He took his nephew to the Indianapolis 500 with Andy Granatelli, donned leather racing gear, and sped around the banked track at 180 miles an hour.
His first wife, Gail, after 42 years of marriage, died from multiple sclerosis in 1996. Not long after, he struck up a romance with Anne Smith, whose husband — then the owner of KEYT and Santa Barbara Magazine — had recently died of cancer. She called him her “silver fox”; he called her his “child bride.” As a couple, they traveled the planet. In photos, they appear strikingly content. Towbes’s wife said goodbye by belting out, in convincing fashion,
“What Matters Most.”
It was later in life that Towbes emerged as a major patron of the arts. He donated $500,000 to the Lobero Theatre in honor of Gail. He donated a shopping center in Ventura to keep KDB 93.7 FM (now KUSC) on the air as the last exclusively classical musical station in the country. Towbes was a diehard theater fan, taking as many shows as he could in New York City. For each one, he would render a carefully thought-out grade. He promoted affordable housing. And when Pearson, while still head of the Housing Authority, sounded the alarm over the loss of housing caused by vacation-rentals, he enlisted Towbes to the cause. When the Santa Barbara City Council was deliberating over a proposed vacation-rental ordinance, Towbes weighed in with a letter urging a ban. It made a difference.
Towbes’s real genius, however, was not his wealth nor his drive. It was, according to former Santa Barbara mayor Hal Conklin and many others, an impulse to reach out and connect. “He was the consummate networker in the most positive way possible,” said Conklin. He was persistent bordering on relentless — but quietly so. He asked questions; he listened to the answers. He heard. He knew everybody. He knew what their passions were. He made it his mission to help when possible. He made sure they knew his passions, too. Through a lifetime of energetic reciprocity, Towbes got a lot done. Sitting in the nosebleed seats of the Granada at Tuesday’s event was Vanessa Bechtel, former director of the City College Foundation. Bechtel met Towbes when she was 22, just out of college, at a Chamber of Commerce function. She sat across the table from Towbes; he made her a little nervous. He was, after all, Mike Towbes. As she cut into a grape, it squirted across the table and landed in his lap. He returned it and put Bechtel at her ease. Later, he made a point to introduce her to people in the room. “When Mike Towbes introduces you,” she said, “you’re somebody.”