The Fort Smith area said goodbye to a favorite son when they buried Ralph “Chad” Colley Jr. of Barling Thursday (Feb. 4). Colley, 76, died Jan. 30. He was a long time Fort Smith businessman and a disabled veterans advocate.
Colley, who lost both legs and use of one arm in an explosion in combat while serving in the Army during the Vietnam War in 1968, was known throughout the country for years of work with the Disabled American Veterans Association (DAV).
Colley was a Paralympic gold medalist skier. During the 1992 Paralympic games in Albertville, France, he won gold medals in both downhill and Super G events. He also earned recognition from Ronald Reagan for his advocacy for disabled veterans.
“Chad Colley was a beloved advocate for disabled veterans, an admired Paralympic skier and a champion for his country,” said U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. “His passing is a tremendous loss. We were blessed by his leadership and admirable example of the way he lived his life using his time and talents to advance national policies that helped others live their best lives. Cathy and I send our heartfelt condolences to Betty Ann and his family, the community and all who loved him as they remember the legacy of this great Arkansan.”
Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said Colley was a true example of a man who firmly believed in his country and his fellow man. He said Colley demonstrated how to make the most of a hardship, even when that hardship was the result of fighting in an unpopular war.
“I never heard him say a negative word about the war he was so severely injured in. I never heard him say a negative word about this city or the people in it,” McGill said. “I knew him well, and I can say he was a great man. Not a great man in the river valley but a great man with an exclamation point after his name.”
McGill said Collie embodied a man who was determined to serve his country in whatever way he could even when he was disabled and that he showed the country what all was possible.
Colley was a member of Eastside Baptist Church in Fort Smith, where he taught Sunday school for many years.
“Chad was a great man who served his country well. Chad went to my church, so I got to see him regularly but never had heard much of his story until I asked he and his wife, Betty, to speak to our Connect Class (Sunday school class) for Veterans Day a few years ago. Listening to his story about the day he lost his legs and how close he came to dying was truly inspirational. The things he did after losing his legs is even more inspirational,” said Fort Smith City Director Neal Martin. “He was a wonderful man and will truly be missed.”
Colley served as commander of the Disabled American Veterans in 1983-84; was named Disabled Veteran of the Year in 1970; was named Handicapped American of the Year in 1988. He served as vice-chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, and in 1996 was a speaker at the Republican National Convention in San Diego.
Colley was born on May 13, 1944, in Fort Smith to Ralph C and Catherine J. Colley in Fort Smith.
The military family lived across the globe, and at different times, Colley lived in Germany, Japan, Georgia, and Kansas, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He attended high school in Columbus, Ga.
After graduating, he attended North Georgia College (now the University of North Georgia), a military school, where he majored in math and minored in physics. He played football, ran track and was a member of the Sigma Theta fraternity and the Scabbard and Blade, the National Military Honor Society.
After graduating in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Colley was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in the Army. He went to Vietnam in November 1967 where he was put in charge of a platoon north of Saigon. Within six months, he was named company commander, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas said. In July 1968, a mine detonated, knocking him unconscious and mangling both of his legs and his left arm. Both Colley’s legs were amputated above the knee, and his arm was amputated below the elbow. Upon his release from the military, Colley held the rank of captain and had received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the Combat Infantry Badge.
Colley Wilderness Park in Van Buren and Chad Colley Boulevard in Fort Smith are both named after him.
He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Betty Ann; his mother, Cathy Colley; brother, Ken Colley; son, Ryan; daughter Emily Ford; and his three grandsons, Jacob, Jared, and Jesse Ford. He was buried at Fort Smith National Cemetery.