Santa Barbara and my sister lose a legend, Michael Towbes

Anne and Michael getting their costumes ready for a trip to Burning Man.

When my sister, Anne, dated and married Michael Towbes, almost 18 years older, within 9 months, I thought she was nuts. I’m pleased to say I was wrong.

Anne’s 2nd husband, who died recently, was an amazing man. The Santa Barbara Independent called him an “all-around mensch.” As a couple, Anne and M.T. were even more amazing. They were the king and queen of Santa Barbara.

Rabbi Steven Cohen’s eulogy at Michael’s by invitation burial was eloquent and apt. He repeated what he’d said when he married them 11 and ½ years before…

“Michael told me the speed with which he asked Anne to marry him was uncharacteristic. He’s usually a deliberative man, but he’d fallen head over heels in love.” He called Anne “an unusual combination of elegance and earthiness who’d had the nerve to make the first move with Michael Towbes, first citizen of Santa Barbara.” (In second marriage, love blossoms again. 09/03/13)

Rabbi Cohen mentioned the joy of being around young love. “There’s something even more inspiring when the two young lovers are individuals who have lived fully, have known both love and loss, and somehow found the open-ness and vulnerability to fall completely in love again.”

Together, Anne and Michael were unstoppable. Both were widowers who’d nursed ill first spouses for several years. Anne and M.T. made up for lost time, traveling to faraway lands like Australia, China and the Galapagos. Closer to home, they visited New York regularly and invested in Broadway theater. They attended Michael’s reunions at Princeton and the opera in Santa Fe. In 2015, they even donned crazy costumes and went to Burning Man in the Nevada desert.

The couple built a beautiful home and opened it for dozens of causes including the Granada Theater and the Santa Barbara Symphony and Opera. They attended, and were often honored at, hundreds more events.

Rabbi Cohen spoke of Michael’s growing up “in a modest row house,” and how he went on to build an empire. He developed over 6,000 apartments, almost 2 million s.f. of commercial properties, a bank with assets over $1.3 billion. Montecito B&T gives away more than $1.3 million annually to area non-profits. Towbes Foundation gifts aren’t far behind.

Michael never stopped working. Even when he and my sister visited us in Florida, Michael spent afternoons bent over piles of paperwork and a laptop.

Together they were unstoppable. Until they weren’t.

M.T. died, at home, of pancreatic cancer. When his body was taken away, he was dressed in a suit and tie, his omnipresent red pen in his pocket. A stickler for grammar, he edited others’ communiques as rigorously as his own.

Michael’s burial took place at a cemetery atop a hill overlooking the ocean. My sister’s ashes will someday be split between the graves of Michael and her first husband, Bob Smith. (A sensible reason for cremation.)

Concluding his eulogy, Rabbi Cohen said, “For the past ten plus years, Anne and Michael have been Santa Barbara’s leading couple. Two human beings, with just as many problems as the rest of us, and good days and bad days, but two human beings who were willing to show up in the center of our community, and to stand up and remind everyone what civilization means.”

Once an English and teacher and drama coach, Anne spoke as well. “A quote from Hamlet comes to mind: ‘He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.’ I’ll miss my Mr. Wonderful terribly. I’ll miss our Sunday tennis games, our amazing trips around the world, our holding hands with every step we took together. Our waltzing around the dance floor, our shared pride in our children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments. But I know he is now at peace.”

Getting dressed that night for Michael’s shiva at Congregation B’nai Brith, I walked into Anne’s bathroom to borrow hairspray. There, on her counter, where only she could see it, was a silver framed picture of M.T. She’d handwritten a different quote from Shakespeare and taped it across the top. “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

In Santa Barbara, contemplating this column, I heard someone at the front door. The FedEx man introduced himself to my sister. “I’ve been dropping off packages here for years,” he said. “I just dropped off another one and was about to leave. I decided to come back and see if you were here. I wanted to offer my condolences. I also wanted to thank you.”

He related something that happened a couple years before. He’d visited a branch of Montecito B&T. There, on the wall, he saw a photo of his family. He wondered why. He learned that one of the bank’s philanthropic recipients was an agency which finds homes for unwanted babies and had facilitated the adoption of his young son. He proudly took out his cell phone to show us a picture of his family. The FedEx man showed up at the shiva that night. He’d changed out of his uniform into a black velvet blazer.

God bless you, Michael. You’ll never know how many lives you’ve touched.

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7 thoughts on “Santa Barbara and my sister lose a legend, Michael Towbes

  1. Lois Cohn

    Suzy, as always, you painted a beautiful portrait of Anne and Michaels’ marriage. I wish I had known them but your words make me feel as if I did.

    You and Anne are remarkable women.

    With love to you,


  2. Judi Weisbart

    Thank you for this beautiful piece about Mike. I love the part about the FedEx man, it was the perfect ending. MT and Anne are both angel and have effected the lives of hundreds by the good deeds and love they spread around for all to feel. I have always been grateful to be in the wash of such a big wave of kindness and love. Blessings to the “sweet prince”

  3. Lynn Buehler

    Your words give life to their life together, thank you so much for this small gift to the world, Suzy.

  4. Destry Ramey

    Beautiful story, beautiful man & couple. How blessed they were to find each other. I can see where the love, compassion & empathy run in your amazing family. Thank you for sharing this part of your family & sister’s life. Their love & marriage were definitely made in heaven, where Michael now awaits for another 18 plus years for his Anne, to walk alongside him again.

  5. Stan

    Beautiful…….THANKS for sharing…………..U and Anne are beautiful sisters, and individuals.

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