Tale of Heroes: Dr. Alma Corley

I’ve been blessed with lots of role models in my life. They have shaped me in so many ways to be who I am today. 

This morning I found out that one of old college professors had passed away at 83. Right now, I don’t have a more eloquent way to write my reaction. I’m just sad. But wow– if she was 83… and I had her classes ten years ago– she was kicking so much ass at 73!

Dr. Alma Corley is no doubt one of the greatest of all time when it comes to life, lessons, and life lessons. For those who didn’t know her, here’s what you missed out on.

The Legend

I thought about opening with a quip that Dr. Corley was an undisputed legend in the field, but sadly that isn’t true. In fact, there were plenty of students who really didn’t care for her at all.

Their thought was “she’s too old”– and by that, she couldn’t stick to the syllabus. She would just ramble about seemingly unrelated things.

Those classmates of mine were chumps.

So maybe she didn’t deliver the class material in cookie cutter, bite-size pieces, but that’s because Dr. Corley was a story driven speaker. I think people got annoyed because they didn’t know how to take notes from a story. But if you just followed along and listened, you didn’t need to take notes. That story would be stuck in your head for the rest of your life.

Once, she shared a story about helping Dick Van Dyke escape the press and paparazzi. Dr. Corley was able to pull him out the mob and guide him to a secret exit. And right when they were saying their goodbyes– damn, she realized she didn’t have her business card on her.

Wouldn’t that have been something? Being able to make that impression on Dick Van Dyke and give him my business card?

On the surface, that just sounds like a PR lesson to always carry a business card. But really, Dr. Corley was letting us know that in moments of greatness, you can still come up short. And when it’s something you could’ve avoided, you’re going to have to live with that.

I think her out-rightness and frankness was another reason Dr. Corley rubbed some people the wrong way.

I remember it was the first day of one of her classes. Things were pretty low key. It was a small class, so we were just introducing ourselves to everyone. We shared our names and one “fun fact”. One girl revealed she was adopted.

Dr. Corley immediately asked, “Are you in contact with your birth parents?”

The girl said no. It was clear she wasn’t interested in connecting with them either. Good for her, I thought.

Dr. Corley continued on, “But wouldn’t you want to know about their health history?”

Oh my goodness, Dr. Corley. The room turned tense. The girl just tried to laugh it off. And on the surface, this all seems like the ramblings of some crotchety old person. Like, oh great, here you go lecturing me without knowing me. Except, Dr. Corley added one more line:

If it were me, I would want to know.

It wasn’t meant to be condescending. There wasn’t condemnation. She was just speaking– out-rightly and frankly– from empathy.

Make no mistake, I’m definitely a full on Dr. Corley mark. I don’t share these stories to make any excuses or try to change anyone’s mind. If you weren’t, aren’t, or never will be a fan, that’s okay– especially because Dr. Corley is A-OK with that.

After class one time, I remember asking her about student pressure. A couple of students were pissed about the way she graded a test. She gave them time during class to openly dispute it, but found ways to break apart their logic and maintain the given grade. It seemed most of the class was on the student side.

“If they already feel this way about you so early on, isn’t this going to cause more problems down the line?” To which she replied:

I don’t care what they think about me. They’re welcome to think whatever they’d like.

Total badass. To this day, I’ve yet to reach that level of unwavering belief and self-efficacy.

The Impact

Dr. Corley taught me that not all lessons have good stories, but good stories have some of the best lessons. And when you can teach by talking in terms of a narrative, people are going to be better off. Those are the kinds of stories that stick.

She once told me, “You’ll do fine, Mr. Dao. I’m not worried about you.” And to hear that from someone who was so opinionated and sure of herself? Man, it felt like the best compliment in the world.

On graduation day, I remember swinging by each professor’s office for one last round of learning and advice. I wondered if she had anything left to impart.

If you know what you want (in life), you better go and do it.

R.I.P. Dr. Corley.

Published by Jon Dao

Formerly, the Conversation Coach

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