The Chairman Steps Down

Michael Towbes was born in 1929, in Washington, DC; his attorney father dealt in real estate rather than law. Towbes attended public high school and went on to Princeton and MIT graduate school, earning a degree in civil engineering. Like his dad, who studied law but didn’t practice it, Michael decided early on that he “wasn’t going to spend my life designing bridges.”

It was the early 1950s and the Korean conflict was on and Towbes signed up for the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School. He joined its Civil Engineer Corps and his first assignment was to Point Mugu. “I had never been to California before, and it was a whole new world for me,” he says.

He “met a California girl,” married her (Gail) while still in the service, and moved to Los Angeles after he resigned his commission. As for any shipboard experiences, he says he “was never on a ship in the three years I was in the navy.” He does say, however, that the work he did at Pt. Mugu building platforms for missile testing “was pretty interesting,” and included firing not only navy missiles, “but some captured German missiles” as well. After a year and a half at Point Mugu, he was sent back to the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington DC.

Upon his release from the service, Michael and Gail moved to California and Towbes went to work for a general contractor for a year, before forming a partnership with Eli Luria, also originally from Washington DC. A longtime Montecito resident, Eli was about ten years older than Towbes and passed away in March of 2006.

Eli had been a successful builder in Washington but attended UCLA as an art major and wanted to return to California. He had known Towbes’ parents, who suggested to Michael that he “should meet Eli.”

The two met, hit it off, and formed a partnership in 1956 to build houses, working in West Los Angeles. That first year, they built one house on contract in Brentwood. Next, they found a small tract of land on the oceanfront in Redondo Beach and built a small apartment house. “Then, we built a couple of small eight-unit apartments,” Towbes recalls.

When asked how difficult it was to put together a stake for such a project, Towbes says “It didn’t take much money, a couple thousand dollars.”

The partnership prospered, as each man had different strengths: “I supervised a lot of construction while I was in the navy, so I hired sub-contractors and inspected the work,” Towbes explains, adding that “[Eli] was the artist, and I was the engineer.”

In 1957, told there was a “big housing boom” up near Camp Cooke, the former U.S. Army recruit training center about to be re-opened as Vandenberg Air Force Base, Eli and Michael headed north.

“We came up and sure enough, there was a big housing boom going on,” Towbes says. In 1959, for example, “there were nine thousand houses built in Santa Barbara County. Today, we build about seven hundred a year, so you can imagine what a boom that was.”

They bought land in Lompoc and some in Santa Maria, and both men picked up and moved, Eli to Santa Barbara, Michael to Santa Maria, where he stayed for a year and a half before moving to Santa Barbara; he has lived in Montecito since 1960.

His first wife, Gail, died in 1996. Towbes has two daughters: Carrie, who just returned to Santa Barbara from Virginia, and Lianne, who lives in New York. He has two grandchildren – Allison and Zachary – both of whom attend Crane Country Day School. Towbes’ sister, Carol Lee Skinner lives in Goleta, and her son, Rob Skinner, is Chief Operating Officer at Montecito Bank & Trust.

Montecito’s Golden Couple

Now 79 years old, Michael Towbes speaks with the enthusiasm, and walks with the gait, of a much younger man. Perhaps he should; he is, after all, a newlywed, having married Anne Smith a little over three years ago (September 3, 2005) under an oak tree at Lotusland. It was reportedly the first such marriage ceremony performed at the Montecito estate, at least since the death, in 1984, of its former owner, Madame Walska.

“Anne is just a wonderful, wonderful human being,” Towbes responds after being asked about his bride. “She is sweet, gentle, enthusiastic,” he continues. “We have similar tastes. We love doing the same things.”

He first met Anne right after his wife died and the two talked about the Lobero, as Anne was president of the Lobero Board of Directors. They had lunch and Towbes was considering making a gift in honor of Gail for the Lobero; she had performed there as a dancer and had been in a number of plays and musicals.

“So, I knew her and Bob [Smith]. I didn’t know them real well,” Michael says. “I remember having lunch with the two of them and with Peter MacDougall, where we convinced them to be the honorees at the MS Dinner of Champions, and would see them from time to time, but she wasn’t a close friend.”

Towbes ran into Anne at a Christmas party about a year after Bob died, “and she asked me to have dinner with her. She said it was Christmas time and she didn’t have any plans. She asked me out. A month later,” Towbes continues, flashing a smile as big as a kid’s with a chocolate chip cookie, “I asked her to marry me.”

The Jewish Federation

Towbes stepped down from his position as chairman of the Jewish Federation’s President’s Cabinet during a special ceremony in Montecito on Sunday December 14, at the home of Julianna Friedman and Tom Dain. Towbes has served as its chairman for the past ten years.

“When I first moved here,” Towbes recounts, “there was a very small Jewish community, but it has grown since.” Towbes has been active with the Santa Barbara Jewish Federation for the past fifteen years. He was on the building committee when the site was chosen for the temple on San Antonio Road and his group built the school behind it.

He admits to having made “a significant contribution” when the Federation bought the former Smart & Final building on lower Chapala Street. Bob Evans was head of Smart & Final at the time, and was “very helpful” to the Federation, according to Towbes.

The President’s Cabinet meets “three or four times a year,” and sometimes invites guest speakers: Salud Carbajal and Cam Sanchez, for example. Both men had visited Israel and talked about their experiences there. Another speaker was a female Israeli soldier, who came to talk about what was going on in that part of the world.

As Towbes explains it, the President’s Cabinet is “a way of keeping major donors involved one way or another. I’ve never served on the board of the Federation,” he continues, “but as chairman of the President’s Cabinet I keep up with what’s going on.”

Towbes has a quick mind. When fellow cabinet member Natalie Myerson told the small crowd at the Friedman home that Michael, by turning over the leadership of the cabinet to Lou Weider, had “passed the torch to the next generation,” most of the crowd tittered, observing that Lou was no youngster. Towbes, upon taking the dais to speak, quipped guiltily that Natalie “had let the cat out of the bag.” He confessed that he, Towbes, was Lou’s father, “that in fact, Lou Weider is my illegitimate son.” When the laughter died down, Weider accepted the gavel – and his new responsibilities – with humor and grace.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Jewish Federation is invited to call 805-957-1115 or go on its website: jewishsantabarbara.org.

Giving It Away

Philanthropy plays a big part in Towbes’ life. This is, for example, the sixth year of “Community Dividends,” whereupon Montecito Bank & Trust – 100% owned by Towbes – distributes one million dollars to various local non-profits.

The bank converted to a sub-Chapter S corporation about six and a half years ago and “Community Dividends,” a name suggested by John Davies, “was an opportunity to give away more money and get the personal tax benefits for doing so.”

There were 100 recipients the first year; this year there were 140. “We’ve expanded our geography,” Towbes explains. “We used to be only in Santa Barbara but now we have an office in Solvang and one in Westlake Village and we just opened an office in Ventura, so there are more non-profits to support.” Most of the money the bank distributes goes towards human services rather than capital campaigns.

Money for the Granada

“My big capital campaign is across the street,” Towbes says, pointing to the Granada Theater a catty corner from his East Victoria Street office. “We’ve been under construction for about three years and probably started about three years before that, gearing up,” he says. He and his group are tantalizingly close to their goal of raising $60 million. “We’ve raised about fifty-eight million dollars,” he notes, “and we’re hoping to raise the last two-million before the year is out (2008).” As for the lofty cost, he shrugs, suggesting it would have cost in the neighborhood of $125 million to have built a new performing arts center, “and I don’t know where you would put it. This is right downtown,” he stresses.

“We need to raise about another million from the public,” Towbes says, noting that a gift “doesn’t have to be immediate cash,” that pledges up to five years can be matched. If you’re interested in donating, especially before the end of 2008, you are invited to call Michael Towbes directly at 805-962-2121.

A Perfect Day

A “perfect Montecito day” for Michael Towbes would be “playing tennis in the morning and going to an event (with Anne) at the Granada in the evening.” His tennis partners are all members of the Montecito Mafia, and he admits freely that “almost everyone beats me.” He does have his favorites, however: Lou Venegas as a doubles partner, and “Bones” Howe are two he mentions, but adds, “There are so many wonderful players in that group – Peter Murphy, of course – but I just love ‘em all.”