In honor of a lifetime of contributions to Santa Barbara County communities, Santa Barbara has paid tribute to the late philanthropist and businessman Michael Towbes by declaring Nov. 28 as Michael Towbes Day.
“I think it’s just wonderful,” said his widow, Anne Smith Towbes, about the gesture. “He had such an impact on Santa Barbara. His style of philanthropy was world class.”
After a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, Towbes, 87, died April 13 at his Montecito home, surrounded by family. He left behind a long record of giving back to the community that had given him so much over the years.
Towbes began volunteering early in his career when he started developing real estate in the Santa Maria and Santa Barbara areas in the late 1950s. He served on numerous nonprofit boards and several local school boards.
He was also a founding board member of the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, which this year surpassed $100 million in total scholarships awarded during its 55-year history. That milestone is believed to be a national record.
In 1980, Towbes and his first wife, Gail, started The Towbes Foundation, which is dedicated to meeting the diverse needs of local nonprofits by focusing on a broad range of organizations. Started with a single $500 donation, the foundation now donates more than $900,000 annually to more than 300 organizations. Gail Towbes died in 1996 after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis.
Towbes later established The Towbes Fund for the Performing Arts at the Santa Barbara Foundation to benefit nonprofit performing arts organizations and their venues throughout Southern California. A lifelong supporter of the performing arts, Towbes and his second wife, Anne, whom he married in 2005, also led the $60 million campaign to restore the Santa Barbara Performing Arts Center at The Granada Theatre.
Anne Towbes said her late husband’s parents also contributed to their community, and that he used the couple as role models for his own philanthropy.
“He grew up with it,” she said. “It was just the right thing to do.
“He would always say, ‘I try to do the right thing even when no one is looking.’”
Towbes was also a founding partner of the Bank of Montecito, now known as Montecito Bank & Trust, the oldest and largest locally owned community bank in the region with offices around the county, including Solvang. A leader in local corporate philanthropy, the bank gives more than $1.3 million annually to area nonprofits through its Community Dividends and Anniversary Grants programs and nonprofit sponsorships.
His real estate company, The Towbes Group, has developed more than 6,000 residential units on the Central Coast.
The inaugural Michael Towbes Day followed the frenzied consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2017, coinciding with the bank’s Community Dividends program and the global Giving Tuesday movement, which encourages people to make charitable donations and perform acts of kindness.
Mayor Helene Schneider said the idea for proclaiming a day in honor of Towbes began with a Facebook post after his death. Someone said there should be a Michael Towbes Day, and Schneider thought it was a good idea.
As the conversation evolved, the idea grew into honoring the late philanthropist’s spirit of paying it forward, Schneider said.
Towbes’ youngest daughter, Carrie Towbes, said she became a little misty-eyed when she learned of the idea for a Michael Towbes Day. She said her father would be thrilled to know his giving had spurred others to do the same.
“It doesn’t have to be big,” she added. “Buy coffee for the person behind you in line at the coffee shop, cook double portions tonight and deliver the meal to a friend going through a hard time. A little bit goes a long way.”
Craig Zimmerman, president of The Towbes Group, hopes the citywide recognition of his nearly 20-year mentor will inspire others.
“I hope it reminds us the impact that one person can make and how that impact can continue, even when he is gone,” he said. “I hope it makes us all aspire to be remembered in a similar manner.”