A bowl of chili upended John Daly’s retirement plans — in a good way.
It motivated him to found The Key Class to teach the tools of successful social skills for anyone, especially youth, who want to succeed in life.
“In both personal and professional situations, every society has traditions that determine the way people are judged by the people they meet. Understanding these guidelines in society can make or break a person in social and business circles. But more and more, it is becoming apparent that these social guidelines are not being taught to our youth,” said Mr. Daly, 72.
He discovered this in dramatic fashion when he became a mentor for at-risk teens at a local nonprofit, which is what he planned to do after retiring in 2009 from a long career where he was known as the “Guru of Special Events Design.”
Among his clients were companies like Gillette, Mastercard, Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Goldman Sachs; celebrities like David Beckham and his wife Victoria, Oprah Winfrey, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Dean Martin; and past presidents, the State Department and Smithsonian Institution. He has been involved with World Cup Soccer, as well as the Olympics to plan events surrounding its festivities.
“Being an employer of many people throughout my career, I know the importance of the positive interview process. My experiences hiring and promoting my own staff, as well as working with top-level executives and celebrities, have taught me the importance of the proper skills necessary to succeed,” said Mr. Daly, a longtime resident of Santa Barbara.
As a retiree, his plan was to work individually as a mentor with at-risk youths in CADA (Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse) until the day he took one of them for lunch.
“He was a 15-year-old boy, and he ordered a bowl of chili, which he proceeded to eat with his hands. After each handful, he would wipe his hands on a paper napkin, the dirty napkins piling up on his lap. I was horrified. I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Mr. Daly. “When he was finished, I told him, ‘I have something to teach you after you go to the restroom and wash your hands.’
“When the boy returned to the table, there was another bowl of chili, a spoon and a cloth napkin. When I showed him how to place the napkin on his lap, he wanted to know why. I explained it was so that food wouldn’t get on his clothes. I had to show him how to hold the spoon, which was awkward for him, and how to use it to eat the chili.
“All the while I was thinking, ‘This guy is either going to love me or hate me.’ When he finished, he thanked me for teaching him, something no one had ever done before,” said Mr. Daly. “On the way home, I cried.”
And then he said to himself, “I know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. I’m going to teach kids social and life skills.”
Six months later, he completed a curriculum for The Key Class, so named because the skills learned are the keys to success. It was introduced in 2010 at CADA’s Teen Court, and since 2013, Mr. Daly has provided the program to almost 10,000 students in multiple high schools in the Santa Barbara Unified School District as well as elementary schools in Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Santa Maria.
The program is a series of four courses, specifically designed for each age group, that include lectures, interactivity and role-playing and a live-action final exam.
“Course 1 is the basics for all students. This is a Basic Behavior 101 Course. It includes how to shake hands, carry on a conversation while looking in another’s eyes, interpret body language, dress for successful impressions, navigate a dining table and understand the good, the bad and the ugly of social media,” said Mr. Daly.
Course 2, entitled “The Importance of a Positive Identity,” is based on ages 16 and up and focuses on developing self-confidence and setting goals. Topics include dating etiquette, relationships and how abuse is not love, cell phone and texting behavior, and financial obligations regarding dating, pregnancy and parenthood.
In Course 3, for ages 17 and up, “The Choices Ahead” covers preparation for college interviews and getting ready for college or life without college, and Course 4, for the same age group, is titled “Your Future Is Here — Freedom Awaits and So Does the Responsibility That Comes With It.”
Included are topics such as paying for essentials, the top five things that will be a surprise, time management and self-employment.
Mr. Daly, who does all the teaching, said, “I’m a one-man show. I’ve never had a better time. The kids have taught me so much. Most people don’t have a clue as to what some of them are up against, It’s amazing.”