Nancy M. Daly dies at 68; prominent activist worked for L.A. children

Nancy M. Daly, who had been married to entertainment executive Robert A. Daly and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, raised awareness of Los Angeles County's neediest youngsters.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Nancy M. Daly, a widely respected children’s advocate, philanthropist and arts leader in Los Angeles, has died. She was 68.

Daly, who had high-profile marriages to entertainment executive Robert A. Daly and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, had been battling pancreatic cancer. She died Friday in St. Louis while traveling back to Los Angeles from New York in a motor home with her three adult children.

“It’s exactly what she wanted,” her daughter Linda Daly said Saturday. “She got to spend her last moments with us. It was an amazing gift that she gave us.”


Daly established herself as one of Los Angeles’ most prominent -- and energetic -- activists on behalf of neglected or abused children after visiting MacLaren Children’s Center, the since-closed Los Angeles County emergency foster facility.

The dismal, prison-like setting she saw on her first visit in 1979 galvanized Daly, then married to her first husband, to harness her considerable Hollywood contacts to raise money for -- and awareness of -- the county’s neediest youngsters.

“Going to MacLaren changed my life,” she recalled in a 1994 interview with The Times.

The Dalys had moved to California from New Jersey in 1978 for Bob Daly’s new position as president of CBS’ entertainment division. Not long after their arrival, she accompanied some of her industry acquaintances to a holiday party for MacLaren children.

“I had never seen a place like this,” she recalled of the facility in El Monte.

“It had been a probation facility, and it was turned into a protection facility several years earlier. . . . They changed the population, but they didn’t change the environment for the children.

“The kids looked sad, and I found it almost unbearable.”

But she went back, with actor Henry Winkler, and soon helped found United Friends of the Children to aid youngsters in foster care.

When Bob Daly became chief executive at Warner Bros., she got him to dispense with the customary practice of sending expensive gifts to industry notables at Christmastime and instead to make contributions to MacLaren on their behalf. “We were one of the first studio executive families to do this,” she said in The Times interview.


Her early work at MacLaren led to a much broader involvement in children’s issues.

In 1984, she successfully lobbied for the creation of what is now the county Department of Children and Family Services and served on its advisory commission from the department’s founding until 1999.

She also worked to establish the county’s Family Preservation Program and its committee.

She also helped found the Children’s Action Network, which sponsored briefings for the entertainment industry on children’s issues and racked up a long record of lobbying in Sacramento and Washington for legislation to improve the lot of foster youngsters.

In 1989, she was appointed to the nonpartisan President’s Commission on Children, which recommended federal government policy reforms.

“She was the central, most important person on the commission for adolescence and foster care and the transition from foster care to adulthood,” a fellow commissioner, Donald Cohen of the Yale Child Studies Center, said of her in a 1994 interview.

“She brought this real personal engagement to thinking about these children because she didn’t relate to them in a professional capacity, but as a mentor and advocate and friend of children in foster care,” Cohen said.

Nancy MacNeil was born June 11, 1941, into a middle-class family in Tenafly, N.J. She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where her father was an accountant and her mother a homemaker.


She met Bob Daly while she was a secretary at CBS, where he had started in the mail room. They married in 1961 -- she was 20, he 24 -- and settled into an apartment in Brooklyn. She quit work a couple of years later, and the Dalys started a family with the birth of daughter Linda in 1966; sons Bobby and Brian followed.

Daly said she enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom, immersing herself and her children in play groups, soccer and Scouts. Then came the family’s move to Los Angeles and Daly’s fateful visit to MacLaren and her increasing involvement with children’s issues. Her role as entertainment industry executive’s wife and her interest in the arts also brought her in contact with many of the city’s movers and shakers.

She met Riordan, then a prominent Los Angeles lawyer, investment banker and philanthropist, around 1989, when she asked him to help pay for a computer reading lab for MacLaren.

A couple of years later she called on Riordan again, this time to help bankroll an immunization program for children of low-income families. He gave $25,000 and rounded up more in donations from friends and business associates.

She filed for divorce in November 1991, and Riordan, who was separated from his second wife, invited the children’s activist to a Christmas holiday party at Union Station. They soon became a couple but did not marry until 1998.

When Riordan was elected mayor in 1993, she was at his side for inauguration ceremonies. He appointed her to a new city commission on children and families, and she took on another project as well -- overseeing the privately funded restoration of Getty House, the timeworn Tudor city manse in Windsor Square.


As the mayor’s wife, and well after he left office in 2001, Daly continued her enthusiastic participation in civic and cultural life.

In 2003, she co-chaired, with former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, a committee to oversee the spending of tobacco tax funds to help provide preschool for all 4-year-olds in the county. She was active in Democrat Hertzberg’s unsuccessful 2005 campaign for mayor.

In 2007 she and Riordan legally separated.

An avid collector of American and California Impressionist art and Rookwood pottery, Daly joined the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2002 and was elected board chair by fellow trustees in 2005. She also served on the boards of the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Los Angeles Opera and others.

Besides her three grown children, she is survived by five grandchildren.

Services are pending.

Times staff writer Claire Noland contributed to this report.