After a successful career as a developer and banker, Michael Towbes spent the last two decades of his life with an increased focus on philanthropy.
He was not simply giving back. He was deliberately creating a legacy for his enterprises to remain rooted in the community, while shaping and guiding the region’s cultural institutions.
That legacy is only becoming clear in the wake of his death from pancreatic cancer on April 11.
Perhaps one reason why there has been an outpouring of support for his family and his widow Anne Smith Towbes is that he touched so many people, and not just in business relationships. He did it in a quiet and thoughtful way and rarely wanted to seize the limelight.
When we created the Business Times Hall of Fame in 2010, I met with Towbes to see if he would be willing to be inducted.
I wasn’t sure he’d like the idea but he was proud of the recognition and also pleased to have a platform to talk about his ideas on how companies needed to play a role in community stewardship.
He had an approach to philanthropy that he once described to me as taking advantage of tactical situations to create long term benefits. He saw the advantage of the bank’s “Community Dividends” program and the power of giving away $1 million every year at Thanksgiving.
He assembled a team of donors, including Sara Miller McCune and Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin, to restore the Granada Theatre. The result was not just a single building but a performing arts district that has reinvigorated a part of State Street.
At Cottage Hospital, he helped form another donor team that provided more than $100 million in funding for a total redesign that eventually became the largest construction project in the city’s history. Cottage CEO Ron Werft told me that, in addition to raising funds, Towbes had been instrumental in steering dozens of key decisions about the project and its final scope.
He often described himself as a “socially liberal Democrat and a fiscally conservative Republican.”
He earned the respect of gay rights advocates and simultaneously warned that giving bureaucrats so much control over the development of workforce housing would diminish opportunities for the middle class. He broke the glass ceiling in banking when he named Janet Garufis president of Montecito Bank & Trust.
In addition to his Hall of Fame induction, there are a couple of moments in the 18-year relationship between us that stand out for me.
He was an early subscriber and from our first issues until just a few months ago, I’d get emails from him pointing out typos and other mistakes in our print edition. I’ll miss getting them — he was the best copy editor we’ve ever had.
On March 27, 2008 a letter arrived at our office bearing Towbes’ personal return address on the envelope. It had traveled via the postal service roughly 25 paces across Carrillo Street from Montecito Bank & Trust’s executive office.
Here is what it said:
“Dear Henry, I’ve been away for a few days, but I noted that March 17th was the 8th anniversary of Pacific Coast Business Times as well as the 33rd anniversary of Montecito Bank & Trust. Congratulations on your milestone, as longevity in either publishing or banking is a rare commodity. I do wonder how a couple of nice Jewish boys ended up with anniversary dates on St. Patrick’s Day! Sincerely yours, Mike”
The letter is framed and hanging in my office. The Towbes empire is in terrific hands but I’ll miss Mike Towbes a lot.
• Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]