Santa Barbara’s First Lady of Philanthropy Looks Back

By Nick Schou   |   November 4, 2021

Born and raised in a leafy suburb of Detroit, Michigan, located near the city’s zoo, Anne Towbes grew up surrounded by the sound of animals – an experience she credits with sparking a lifelong passion for nature. But the future wife of the late Santa Barbara philanthropist Michael Towbes – and the surviving half of the city’s most influential power couple whose impact on the Santa Barbara’s culture of public work is difficult to overstate – was also destined for a career in philanthropy.

The child of a family dedicated to public service – including an architect uncle who helped design parts of the Motor City’s skyline such as the nation’s first Ford automobile plant – says she learned early on the value of volunteering. As a teenager, she became a candy striper who visited the elderly in nursing homes. “I also created candy poppers (cardboard tubes filled with hard candy) and delivered them to children in hospitals every Christmas during my high school years,” Towbes recalls. “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher and used to organize my dolls as my students to play ‘school’ with them.”

Towbes attended the University of Michigan for both college and graduate school, where she majored in English literature and education. During her studies, she met her first husband, Bob Smith, while he was attending law school there; the pair raised two children together while she tutored disadvantaged elementary students before becoming a schoolteacher for the next 18 years. Now, her daughter, Jennifer, owns Santa Barbara Magazine and C Magazine, and her son, Michael, founded an environmental venture fund called Regeneration.VC.

Three decades ago, when Smith purchased KEYT-TV from the Shamrock Broadcasting Group (then part of the Disney Company), Towbes moved to Santa Barbara, where she continued her lifelong involvement in children’s theater and became a board member and eventually board president of the Lobero Theatre. “My daughter attended San Marcos High School and was active in theater there, and my son attended Cate School and was active on the tennis team,” Towbes says. “I also became president of the Cate Parents League.”

Besides being an active participant in Santa Barbara’s cultural and educational community, Towbes also helped her husband leverage his role as a broadcaster to give valuable publicity to nonprofit organizations. “This would help them get their message and mission out to the public, who then would hopefully help support them,” Towbes explains. “We helped the station create programs such as Santa Barbara Treasures, which showcased several nonprofits weekly for several years. We also created a feature called ‘Kids You Should Know,’ highlighting local kids doing extraordinary things to help our community.”

“I am privileged to be able to give small amounts of support or ‘fairy dust’ to as many nonprofits as I can, as I feel it encourages others to give as well. Philanthropy has truly opened up my heart and my life and I try to live in gratitude every day.”

The husband-wife team also created KEYT’s Unity Telethon to raise funds and awareness for the Unity Shoppe and the Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse (CADA) mentor program, which helps local students earn volunteer hours by mentoring a disadvantaged student at least an hour a week during the school year. Both telethons continued over many years. “I also created the Gratitude Luncheon, which continues to support the mentor program,” adds Towbes. “We always have a speaker talk about who their mentors were who helped change their lives for the better.”

For the past 30 years, Towbes has been volunteering her time and giving support to many worthwhile causes in Santa Barbara, including Santa Barbara City College (where she was a foundation board member and later helped fund the Sara Evelyn Smith Drama Scholarship in honor of her late mother-in-law) and The Women’s Fund, where she served as a founding member and remains an active contributor. Other organizations she’s committed to are UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures as an ambassador and a board member of the UCSB Foundation (with a special focus on graduate education), the Hutton Parker Foundation, and, last but not least, the Towbes Foundation. 

After Smith passed away in 2003, Towbes met and later married her second husband, Michael Towbes. “Michael was a developer, banker, and philanthropist who taught me so much about philanthropy,” she says. “He was the most thoughtful, generous person I have ever known.” 

At the same time, Towbes says, her husband was strategic and clear-eyed with his funds. “He showed me how to focus on, identify, and support organizations having clear missions, goals, and programs that effect change and add to the soul of the community.”

Among other things, Towbes says, Michael advised her to give to organizations that speak to her heart – in her case, those that helped foster the pursuit and appreciation of music, the performing and visual arts, education, animals, architecture, and mental health. Towbes is also helping to oversee the creation of the Michael Towbes Library Plaza, which will be located next to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. “This project is a passion of mine,” Towbes says. “It will serve to remind future generations about his incredibly generous spirit.”

Towbes also considers herself lucky to be able to sponsor her own donor-advised fund at the Santa Barbara Foundation, which gives her more direct control over her own philanthropy. “I am privileged to be able to give small amounts of support or ‘fairy dust’ to as many nonprofits as I can, as I feel it encourages others to give as well,” she says. “Philanthropy has truly opened up my heart and my life and I try to live in gratitude every day.”