The Charlottesville native had the twinkle in his eye, the rosy cherub cheeks and certainly the heart of solid gold. Not surprisingly, at this time of year he loved portraying the jolly gift-giver.
A week or so before Christmas 1961, Towe got dressed in his Santa suit. With white beard attached and tasseled red hat at a jaunty rake on his noggin, he set out on his appointed rounds.
The first leg of the trip had him driving to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, where a helicopter awaited his arrival. The whirlybird then would take him to Barracks Road Shopping Center, where a mob of children and adults would cheer his grand entrance.
But between home and chopper, a mechanical Grinch caused the car’s engine to clonk out. The Santa impersonator had no choice but to stick out his thumb and hope for the best.
The first motorist to come along was a woman who eyed the “red-costumed hitchhiker” with suspicion. She sped up.
Next along were two young ladies who couldn’t pull over fast enough. They were nice enough to give Santa a ride straight to his motorized sleigh, and he was able to stay on schedule.
During ensuing years Towe had as many as five Santa suits of the finest quality. They were so nice that he sometimes rented them out, asking only that the wearers make donation to their favorite charity.
In addition to being an exceptional human being, Towe was the quintessential civic and community leader. His many titles included City Councilor, chairman of the local Republican Party and president of the Virginia Jaycees, a position he held for 25 years.
As president of Towe Insurance, he proved himself to be the kind of agent a person wants when trouble strikes. When people started calling him “Mr. Charlottesville,” they meant it.
The son of Forrest S. Towe and Helen Smith Towe was born Sept. 15, 1935, in Charlottesville. He attended Lane High School, Hampden-Sydney College and Emory and Henry College, where he graduated in 1961.
In the late 1950s, Towe served honorably for two years in the U.S. Army. While stationed in Germany, he was fond of handing out his father’s business cards, which had “Smile” printed on them in large blue letters.
“Once, while I was on leave in Italy, I had difficulty understanding an Italian cab driver regarding the fare,” Towe told The Daily Progress in 1958, when he was home on leave.
“The more I shrugged my shoulders to indicate I had no idea how much he wanted, the more he waved his arms and accelerated his language. In final desperation, I handed him one of my father’s cards.
“Perhaps this was the only English word the Italian knew. A wide grin crossed his face and he shook my hand. The fare was completely forgotten.”
Towe worked tirelessly on behalf of the city he loved, but he was equally as dedicated to helping people. He played an important role in the development of Camp Virginia Jaycee in Bedford County.
The camp was created for mentally and emotionally handicapped children. Towe was especially touched by a letter he received from a girl who wrote him about her “wonderful summer at the camp” and how she had learned to shampoo her hair.
Towe shared that letter with his brother, James. But when it came to doing good, he kept that to himself as much as he could.
That’s not to say Towe wasn’t fond of making a splash when appropriate. On the Fourth of July, he would outdo any Yankee Doodle Dandy there ever was.
Towe started every Independence Day by attending the American citizenship ceremonies at Monticello. From there, he would visit every private and public picnic, celebration or function he could get to.
And there was no missing him in his red, white and blue shirt, which was embossed with stars. His patriotic suspenders, “Stars and Stripes Forever” baseball cap and red bowling shoes added additional flair.
As much as Towe loved the Fourth of July, Christmas for him was even more special. He started his tradition of playing Santa soon after getting out of the service.
Dressed in his Santa suit, he would bring cheer to all, be they rich or poor. When a friend suggested that a widow, Barbara Pierce, and her two young children could use a little cheering up from Santa, he was on his way.
Towe’s hope of bringing a little happiness to three strangers resulted in him meeting his future wife. His act of kindness was rewarded with the priceless gift of love.
When Towe died unexpectedly of cancer on Aug. 13, 1992, word of his passing swept through the city like an ill wind. Initial shock quickly gave way to tears.
“It’s kind of like the day Santa Claus died,” Jim Carpenter said as he tried to comprehend the death of his close friend.
Rain was falling the morning of the funeral. When there was no standing room left in First United Methodist Church, people filled the social room in the basement, where they watched the service on closed-circuit television.
The funeral procession from the church to Monticello Memory Gardens was estimated to have been 2 miles long. Several months later, Towe was awarded the Paul Goodloe McIntire Award for his dedication to the community.
Marshall Pryor remembered how his longtime friend preferred to have his good deeds go unnoticed. He recalled how he would bring apples and oranges to patients in nursing homes, and took it upon himself to mend fences at Little League baseball parks.
“He had a knack about him — just so much fun and so full of life,” Pryor said of Towe. “If you saw him on the street and you didn’t say ‘hi’ to him, he’d say ‘hi’ to you.”