Dorothy Frances Coley grew up in Wilders Grove, North Carolina, and graduated from high school in Knightdale in 1936. She then went to the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) to study physical education. After graduating in 1940, she taught for one year in Durham, North Carolina, and for another year at Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina.
In 1942, Coley joined the American Red Cross. After training in Washington, D.C., she went to Fort Polk in Leesville, Louisiana. Her next assignment was at a Daytona Beach, Florida, convalescent hospital, and then she was sent to the Navy Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. Coley’s last assignment during World War II was at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. After the war ended, she went overseas to supervise workers in hospitals in Stuttgart and Augsburg, Germany, and Switzerland. When she returned to the United States, she was stationed in New York until she left the Red Cross in 1958.
Coley earned a master’s degree in social work from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 1960. She later worked in the Children’s Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and at Butner Hospital in Creedmoor, North Carolina.