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story.lead_photo.caption Michele Towne, publisher of Inviting Arkansas magazine. “Everybody loves Michele,” says friend and Little Rock businessman Rick Fleetwood. “There should be a movie. She is always upbeat and fun and making you feel special. She’s got that down to a fine art." - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

It’s easy to picture Michele Towne as a 5-year-old in Memphis, going door-to-door in her new neighborhood asking if anybody had children she could play with. In a sense, she has been doing the same thing since arriving in Arkansas three decades ago.

“Making friends and keeping friends has always been important to me,” says Towne, owner and publisher of Inviting Arkansas magazine.

SELF PORTRAIT

Michele Towne

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Jan. 13, 1965, Charlotte, N.C. GROWING UP MY BIGGEST INFLUENCE WAS: My maternal grandmother, Marianthe Reynolds.

I WON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT: A camera and lipstick. FAVORITE FOOD: Mexican

LAST BOOK I READ: Lessons From a Third Grade Dropout by Rick Rigsby.

PET PEEVE: People who don’t say thank you. MY IDEA OF A PERFECT DAY IS: A convertible day! GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: My grandmother, Lucille Ball, Jackie Kennedy and Katharine Hepburn. ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Determined.

For the past 17 years, she has also been introducing the state’s residents to one another through her magazine, which is distributed throughout central Arkansas. Within a short time of starting the monthly publication, Towne decided to focus its coverage on nonprofit organizations and the people who strive to make them successful through contributions of time, talent or money.

“I don’t even know that you could calculate” Towne’s impact on those organizations, says Elizabeth Clogston, executive director of the Twentieth Century Club, which provides free housing for cancer patients receiving treatment in central Arkansas at its Hope Lodge. “Because so many different organizations get to tell their story through Inviting Arkansas, it helps.”

In March, the club named Towne its Hope Award recipient for her work on behalf of nonprofits.

Towne has easily attended more than a thousand fundraisers and other events over the years, looking every bit as glamorous as the people she’s snapping photos of for her magazine. This role of connector and partygoer-in-chief comes naturally, she concedes. Towne loves entertaining friends with a home-cooked meal — or starring on the “Dance Cam” at University of Arkansas at Little Rock basketball games.

“She was always convinced she was going to be a star of stage and screen when she was little,” says husband John. “She can put on the kind of ditzy personality when it’s to her advantage. She’s really a smart lady.”

“Everybody loves Michele,” says friend and Little Rock businessman Rick Fleet-wood. “There should be a movie. She is always upbeat and fun and making you feel special. She’s got that down to a fine art.”

In her west Little Rock office, decorated with framed blowups of Inviting Arkansas covers, Towne throws up her hands and demurs in the style of her childhood idol, actress Lucille Ball:

“Everybody loves Michele,” says friend and Little Rock businessman Rick Fleetwood. “There should be a movie. She is always upbeat and fun and making you feel special. She’s got that down to a fine art.”

“I’m as dull as dishwater!”

Towne’s parents divorced when she was young, and Towne says the experience shaped her in two key ways. Her father stayed involved in Towne’s life, but watching her mother support her and her younger brother while working for the U.S. Postal Service had a profound impact.

“That’s the one thing that I have to say truly made me the person I am, because my mother worked full time to take care of me and my brother. It made me very independent. It’s not like I had a bad childhood or anything like that. It put me in a mothering role at a very early age. It gave me a work ethic and made me realize you have to work hard for the things you want in life.”

It also meant that Towne spent lots of time with her maternal grandmother, a transplanted northerner who wore a bouffant hairdo and drove a convertible. “Although she was from the North, she taught me all about Southern hospitality. She really taught me about decorating, entertaining, how to cook.”

Towne says her grandmother’s death at age 61 was “devastating.” But thanks to her, she says, “I do love to set a table. I’m a dish freak. I love china, I love crystal, I love beautiful tablecloths.”

She also drives a convertible.

PARTY GIRL

Towne started baby-sitting at 10 and got a job waiting tables at a Shoney’s Big Boy at 16. At school, she was a cheerleader, glee club member and the lead in several student plays. A natural redhead, Towne’s idol then and now was Lucille Ball, whom she still watches on a near nightly basis. She went away to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville intending to become a businesswoman. For a time, though, her inclination to have a good time interfered.

“I always say I had so much fun I got to go home and go to Memphis State.”

She met her husband, John, while attending that school and working part time. Six months later, they were engaged. John, who had also grown up in Memphis, had one question besides the big one to ask, as Towne recalls.

“He said, ‘If you love me, will you love me in Little Rock?’”

Towne “didn’t know a soul” when she moved to town as a 21-year-old newlywed — a scary prospect for her personality type but also one she was eminently equipped to rectify.

“She’s never met a stranger,” John Towne says. “That’s the thing most people figure out when they first meet her.”

Both Townes worked in sales, John selling orthopedic devices and Michele hawking office equipment. Even without a college degree — “I always say I got a M-R-S in college,” Michele says — it’s easy to see why she’d be good at sales. Towne moved into medical sales herself, selling pacemakers and other cardiovascular devices, then took time off to start a family. The Townes have two sons: Hayden, 26, who works in sales in Memphis and who Michele says “is a little more like me, a little whimsical”; and Michael, 23, who works for a software company in Little Rock and is “a little more serious,” like his father.

PUBLISHING NEOPHYTE

Michele loved raising kids but was also ready to get back to work before long. She spent several years selling advertisements for Entertainment Publications, which produces two-for-one coupon books. Then, when Hayden was 9, the Townes started Inviting Arkansas. The two had been impressed by a magazine in their hometown, RSVP Memphis, which covers that city’s social and philanthropic scene. At the time, Little Rock didn’t have a glossy monthly publication of that type.

“Of course, being that my background was not publishing, we didn’t know whether it would work or not,” Towne says. A competitor, Little Rock Soiree, soon followed into the market.

“If I’ve got something to compete against, that keeps my engines running,” Towne says.

Michele was the publication’s first — and for a while only — full-time employee. With John in the background keeping the books, she concentrated on selling the magazine to advertisers and assembling a staff with experience producing editorial content. “I was lucky to be able to hire primarily stay-at-home moms in the publishing industry. I surrounded myself with people who did know the industry. We made it.”

Michele also attended and continues to attend social events, camera in hand to snap the party pics that make up a significant portion of the magazine.

Today, Inviting Arkansas has a full-time staff of six people, all women. “Not that I wouldn’t hire a man,” Towne says. “We do have a great camaraderie. We work together, we play together, we cry together. They are like sisters.”

The magazine’s editor, Kim Meyer-Webb, says Towne “is one of the most authentic people I’ve ever met. She leads by example and doesn’t expect anybody on her small but mighty team to do anything she wouldn’t do” — including hand delivering the magazine to outlets when it comes out each month. Towne also makes a fantastic pimento cheese, Meyer-Webb adds. “I’m convinced it’s a top-secret Memphis recipe.”

At the outset, Towne thought the magazine could cover everything happening on the city’s social scene. But as she learned more about the organizations and causes and people that many fund-raisers disguised as parties raise money for, she decided to focus “about 99 percent” on them.

HAT LADY

A couple of well known women helped Towne figure out the lay of the central Arkansas philanthropic land. One was Willie Oates, the hat-wearing socialite and civic activist who died in 2008. “They hit it off,” says Fleet-wood, who introduced the pair. “Willie took her under her wing and kind of got her started off pretty good.”

The other was Cindy Murphy, the businesswoman and philanthropist who has helped many of the area’s nonprofits. “She is a very, very smart businesswoman,” Towne says. “She was very instrumental in coaching and consulting with me. To this day, I will ask her opinion on critical things.”

The magazine runs articles on four to six nonprofits a month, usually tied to some forthcoming fundraising event, plus photos from a dozen or more events. There are shorter sections devoted to food and fashion. “What she does is nothing less than a miracle,” Fleetwood says. “That magazine turns some events from not making any funds into actually making them a success.”

Inviting Arkansas’ covers and articles often focus on

“If I’ve got something to compete against, that keeps my engines running,” Towne says.

Michele was the publication’s first — and for a while only — full-time employee. With John in the background keeping the books, she concentrated on selling the magazine to advertisers and assembling a staff with experience producing editorial content. “I was lucky to be able to hire primarily stay-at-home moms in the publishing industry. I surrounded myself with people who did know the industry. We made it.”

Michele also attended high-profile people who, in addition to materially aiding nonprofits, add a bit of glamour. Mary Steenburgen, the actress and North Little Rock native, and her husband, Ted Danson, graced one. But the magazine also highlights the people served by these organizations and the people working in them day-to-day. One recent cover subject was Lesley Murphy, a well-known travel blogger who told her story — of having an elective double mastectomy — to raise awareness of genetic testing and the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute’s annual Gala for Life fundraiser.

“I find myself in tears at these heartfelt stories,” Towne says.

Many of the nonprofit organizations buy ads in the magazine, but Towne says “that is not at all how I pick and choose which events to cover.” Indeed, one of Towne’s regrets is that the magazine can’t cover everything. “We don’t cover anniversaries and birthday parties and things like that,” she said. “If they are raising money for something, then by all means.”

SOCIAL SEASON

If it’s a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night in the spring or fall — central Arkansas’ social season, in other words — there’s a good chance Towne is putting on a long dress and high heels to attend a fundraiser. One development that Towne heartily approves of is the involvement of more young people at these functions — and the trend toward making them more casual.

But the truth is, after attending more than a thousand such affairs, she still enjoys them. At a high school reunion in Memphis, she told her old classmates she gets “paid to party. They said, ‘That’s perfect!’”

She’s part of the social scene herself, taking part in charity fashion shows, karaoke contests and a Dancing With the Stars fundraiser for the Children’s Tumor Foundation. Of the Hope Award, she says, “I was completely humbled. I don’t do what I do to receive any recognition or anything like that. Truly, it’s the mission of what we set out to do.”

And one she doesn’t see ending anytime soon.

“As long as nonprofits continue to need us, and I think they will, we’ll continue to do it.”

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
“As long as nonprofits continue to need us, and I think they will, we’ll continue to do it.” - Michele Towne

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