Reflecting on his career and interests, John Daly says he’s always been “enthralled with customs and etiquette.” That passion fueled his desire to teach at-risk youth how to empower themselves by learning customs and etiquette, too.  (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

After 44 years in the international event-planning business, John Daly says he “probably only went to work about two of those years — every day I got up and I went to another fun, wonderful experience.”

Although Daly and his wife, Marti, moved to Santa Barbara from Pacific Palisades 20 years ago, he spent many of those years on the road for work.

Now semi-retired, the considerable talent and energy that he once lavished on big-name clients like Coca-Cola, GM, Jaguar and MasterCard is focused primarily on young people going through Santa Barbara County Teen Court. The program is a joint project of the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and the Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

Daly has developed “The Key Class,” a series of classes to teach youth the critical social etiquette tools for success in both personal and professional situations, focusing on techniques like how to shake a hand, look someone in the eye as you speak and eat a meal with proper table manners. He also gives pointers on appropriate grooming and body language, doing research for job interviews, and making a good impression on potential employers.

Daly was inspired to develop the Key Class through his other volunteer work as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) of Santa Barbara County and as a mentor to four boys.

Early in his CASA relationship, he took a boy to dinner and was shocked.

“I watched this guy sit down and eat a bowl of chili with his hands,” Daly recalled. “No napkin in the lap, no nothing.

“I said, I know that this is our first time out, but you need to go wash your hands, then you need to put a napkin in your lap, and then you need to use a spoon to eat your chili. He had no idea how; he was 14 at the time about to turn 15.”

The concern and affection is evident in Daly’s eyes as he recalls the story.

“I thought a lot about that,” said the father of five grown children and grandfather to five. “I noticed also the kids who I mentored didn’t have any sort of social skills whatsoever.”

As a young man, Daly was “enthralled with customs and etiquette from both the United States and different countries,” and he credits his research with some of his later business success working with governments in South Africa, India, China and France, as well as many international corporations.

“I’ve always been interested in all of these different customs and why they do the things the way they do them,” he said. “It’s always been why. Not just how, but why is it that you put a knife with the blade facing in and why is it you shake hands …

“I thought, why don’t I put together some sort of a curriculum that I can start teaching kids how to do these things that are expected in everyday life,” said Daly, who got his start in the event-planning business while delivering flowers to pay his way through college.

After a basic class, good-naturedly titled “Shake the Hand that Feeds You,” the second class is held at the Gap in Paseo Nuevo, where Daly and the Gap’s Isaiah Ornelas prepare students to dress and behave properly for interviews.

The third class focuses on filling out job applications as well as some tips on dining out.

The final class, a primer on restaurant behavior, has been held at several generous restaurants and venues, but seems to have found a home now at Jill’s Place, 632 Santa Barbara St.

“(Owner Jill Shalhoob) has been absolutely a huge supporter of this,” said Daly. “She has given us a real special deal on the meal, and she allows us to go in and really set the table because they don’t do that. I in turn have taught her wait staff how to serve properly and how to make better tips and so forth.”

Another component of the Key Class: introductions.

“At the beginning of the class, every student has to introduce themselves to each other because the more they do it the more comfortable they get,” said Daly, who also volunteers with Santa Barbara Partners in Education and conducts mock interviews with high school seniors.

“At the beginning of this class a lot of these kids are very indifferent,” he said. “At the end of the fourth class, three-fourths of the kids hug me goodbye and thank me.”

Daly said that hug is the greatest reward.

“I give them my business card and I tell them when you are ready to fill out an application, please let me know,” he said. “I’m going to help you fill it out, I’ll do a mock interview with you, and if you know you are going to such and such a place I’ll help you do research on the place and I’ll ask you the hard questions.

“It’s marvelous, it’s really marvelous,” he continued. “The toughest thing about it quite frankly is funding.”

Daly has paid for the majority of the Key Class out of his own pocket and is looking to expand the program to business schools, law schools and colleges in the hopes that those proceeds will help underwrite the classes for at-risk youth.

When asked if he misses the excitement of the events business, Daly says he still takes the jobs that he “really, really, really wants to do.” He also keeps himself busy with a side business, Montecito Home Staging, in which he puts his design skills to use to transform homes that are for sale.

“Fortunately, my wife and I have a crazy, crazy love affair,” he laughed. “We are like two teenage kids after 29 years, and just to be home together is the best.”

Click here for more information on Santa Barbara County Teen Court’s Key Class, or call 805.963.1433. Click here to make an online donation to the program. Become a fan of the Council of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse on Facebook. Follow CADA on Twitter: @CADASB.

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieDinaberg.