Santa Barbara Philanthropist
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Anne Towbes has had many roles: teacher, media mogul, and philanthropist. She talks about personal transitions, dining with Charles, Prince of Wales, and how she has been looking for an audience since the age of 6.
Anne Towbes and her husband, business and community leader Michael Towbes, have helped to build Santa Barbara into the vibrant place it is.
Anne & Michael Towbes are some of Santa Barbara’s favorite impact makers. In addition to her dedication to and investment in the many communities the Towbes are active in, Anne brightens someone’s day by smiling, offering support, and giving many hugs. On the day of this interview, Anne was even singing to us.
Anne, you’re so involved with many projects, foundations, and companies. What is a typical passion project?
Usually having to do with the arts or with children. That has always been my focus. I was a teacher, taught high school drama and English, and then moved back to 4th and 5th grade language arts and reading. I always did dramatic interpretations of whatever we were doing.
I also did community theater, and directed, in Columbia, Maryland. And then moved back to Michigan, continued to direct community theater, and before that I was in theater myself.
I love the otherworld of it, the fancifulness. I was 6, at my earliest performance. I was on Auntie Dee, which was a cute little TV talent show in Detroit. My cute friend from across the street coached me.
Anne, you sang this on TV when you were 6 years old?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve been singing and looking for an audience ever since.
I went on to summer camp in Maine, where I went from age 9 to about 17. I still go every five years and see the friends that I made when I was nine. I always played the male leads since I have the lower voice. I was Billy Bigelow in Carousel and Harold Hill in The Music Man.
What is it like to play the male lead? It must be fun?
It was, yeah! Last year my husband and I went to see Carousel at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown. I could not believe that we did that as 16-year-olds. That was hard music.
At a young age you already had the travel bug, right?
I got that from my dad. He and I used to take little trips, the two of us. Mom didn’t like to be in a car, so she would fly down to join us like to Florida from Michigan. I have wonderful travel memories with my dad. I was the navigator, which was too bad because I wasn’t very good at it. He was a navigator in World War II. I’d tell him to turn right and he’d turn left, and we’d get there!
My biggest trip was an overland trip from London to Nepal with 90 Australians in two buses. It was really amazing. I’m still in touch with a couple of the friends from Australia.
I have seen most of the Middle East, which I’m so grateful I did when I did. It makes me sad to see everything that’s going on now.
What’s the most important thing you learned while you were on these trips?
How similar everybody is. We were in Istanbul a couple years ago. I did see a democratic Muslim society — people getting up in the morning, getting their kids ready for school, and driving in their cars. They all just want the best for their kids. We have so much common ground.
You’ve taken on so many roles and responsibilities with many transitions. What would your advice be for those finding themselves in an unnerving and stressful phase in their lives?
I try to wake up in gratitude. Today is really a gift because we don’t have to wake up. I just saw that Boutros-Ghali passed away. It just can happen like that. Really, all we have is this minute.
I wake up and I say thank you dear God. I look forward to whatever the day will bring. That’s how I start the day, and then I try to be open to opportunities.
Keep a wider vision because you never quite know what one step will lead to the next step will lead to the next. Life can take surprising turns, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it. Stay local if you can because it has ripples, and you can see the effects of your actions.
If you have the time and the possible resources to look into your heart and say, where are my passions? What can I do to make me feel great, but also to make an impact on the world? Then that’s the footstep to take, but you never quite know where one footstep will lead, so it’s important to be open.
Can you give me an example of something in your own life where that happened?
I was teaching English, and the gal who was the drama teacher sadly passed away. The principal said, “Well, you’re always dramatizing your class. Would you take over the whole department?” I wasn’t trained for it other than having my own experience in theater, but I did it. It was wonderful.
How was dinner with the Prince of Wales?
I had to Google him; I had to get organized! He had me to his right and another lady to his left and he would talk to me for 10 minutes, talk to her for 10 minutes. Talk to the person across, and then back to me, and back to her.
We talked about horses and about antiques. We talked about Shakespeare because it was a friend-raiser for the Globe Theatre.
Then at the end, he said to the cohost, “Are we finished with dinner?” The man said, “Yes, we are.” The Prince of Wales says, “Well, that’s it then.” Up he went and left. No good-byes. It was very funny — very protocol, formal, but sweet.
Who’s your impact maker?
In terms of getting involved in the media, I would have to say it was Byron Elton who was the general manager for KEYT. Bob, my late husband, bought the station and hired Byron as general manager.
Byron and I, we started the Mentor Telethon, which has now provided over 250,000 volunteer hours in the past 17 years. We asked people to commit an hour a week to students who are in critical times in their lives. We just had our fifth gratitude lunch!
My former mother-in-law [Sarah Smith] was a big influence on me as a person and the way I enfold people. She taught me how to hug and how to be more open. Even though it wasn’t the easiest to have her underfoot for nine years, I am much more warm than I was before she was in my life.
Describe your relationship with your sister.
Wonderful. As my mother said, “When I go to my great golf course in the sky, I just want you two to be close,” which we are. We’re very close. When Bob [former husband] was so sick, I would call, and she’d say, “Okay, you can scream now.” So I’d scream into the phone, and she’d scream back.
Then, I got this wonderful new life. So I’ve been lucky twice.