Quentin Corley was asked in a 1966 interview, six decades after losing both arms in an accident, about his success and determination. Thinking back on his life, he said, “I just didn’t have sense to know that I’d been licked.” Inventor, lawyer, farmer, and early Dallas County judge, Corley never let his limitations stop him. The prosthetics he invented initially for himself later gave many full lives and new hope, and his leadership helped change the face of Dallas.
Corley was born in Mexia in 1883. A largely uneventful childhood, the family later moved north to Dallas. He was a bright student and graduated Dallas High School in 1901. He soon picked up work as a stenographer for a local law firm while studying engineering.
In 1905, some friends talked him into heading to the Panama Canal with them for construction work. Anxious to put his engineering skills to work, he agreed. As the group was short on funds, they decided to stowaway on trains. What started as a youthful adventure soon turned tragic. He fell out of a moving freight car near Utica, New York, and hit the tracks. The train ran over both arms, leaving him without his right arm and his left forearm severed.
Corley was initially not expected to survive. Doctors were able to stabilize him but now he had to face life without one arm and without both hands. Prosthetics at the time were still primitive and often impractical.
He was determined that he would not let this stop him. “I’d gotten into this on my own and was going to get out of it on my own and be able to do anything anybody else could,” he said years later. He soon put his engineering skills to work and fashioned prosthetics for both arms that would allow him to be able to write and eat and lift do all of the things he could do previously. He even designed the hand attachments so they could hold different tools. Two years later, he patented his device that allowed him to perform most functions. He patented a second one that allowed him to put on his own tie.
Before long, he returned to work in road construction and engraving. Friends soon encouraged him to study law. He took to it quickly and passed the bar exam in 1907.
Corley was elected a justice of the peace in 1908, just three years after his accident. In Texas, a justice of the peace is a small-claims court judge. With his quick mind and gentle wisdom, he was a popular figure in the courtroom. Friends and supporters soon began thinking of higher office for him after his re-election in 1910.
As his political fortunes rose, he found time to start a family. He married, and the couple soon had two children: a daughter, Hattie, born in 1911, and a son, Quentin, Jr., born in 1913.
In 1912, Corley was elected county judge for Dallas County. Though the modern county judge position is solely that of chief administrator for the county and presiding over the county commissioners and not one of the courtrooms. Corley, however, had extra duties as a probate judge and a juvenile court judge, handling hundreds of cases each year.
He bought a Model T Ford in 1913. In the years before power steering and automatic transmissions, driving almost certainly took two hands. Nevertheless, he fashioned a few modifications to allow him to drive the car with his prosthetics and his feet and soon became a familiar site driving through Dallas. Corley later regretted that he did not patent these particular modifications.
During his time in office as county judge, he helped oversee the explosion in growth that characterized Dallas County in the twentieth century In 1914, the Federal Reserve chose Dallas over Houston as the home of the regional Federal Reserve Bank. The decision took all of the political and business influence Dallas had and ultimately cemented the city’s position as a major regional center for finance. Southern Methodist University opened in 1915. Love Field was opened in 1917 as an army training center. Three new major buildings were completed in 1918 in Dallas, including the 18-story American Exchange Building.
He chose not to seek re-election in 1918 and returned to private life. But his years afterward were anything but quiet. Corley continued to be active in Dallas business and civic activities for many more years. He was well-known for his energy and enthusiasm.
He continued to work in law and continued to do engraving work periodically. He had done well enough for himself that he bought a 700-acre ranch in Upshur County that he operated largely himself. Only a mild heart attack at the age of 80 in 1964 finally stopped him from working the land any longer. Nevertheless, he still drove himself through the 1960s and walked up to a mile per day.
He died quietly at his Dallas home in April 1980 at age 97. He overcame much to live his life with independence, quiet dignity, and the respect of his peers. In part because of his efforts, Dallas became the important city it is. And in part because of his imagination, many disabled people could enjoy life without limitations.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.