Samuel Eugene Kelly, soldier and educator, was born in Greenwich, Connecticut on January 26, 1926 to James Handy Kelly, a minister, and Essie Matilda Allen-Kelly, a homemaker. Educated at Greenwich public schools, Kelly dropped out of high school in 1943 and joined the United States Army the following year. Although he entered the Army as an eighteen-year-old private, fifteen months later he had completed Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and in August 1945 was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. With World War II over in the same month, Kelly became part of the U.S. occupying forces in Japan, serving there until 1950.
After the Korean conflict began Kelly was assigned to South Korea in 1951, where he became one of the first African American officers to command an integrated combat unit. He fought in Korea for the next sixteen months, facing both North Korean and Chinese Army troops. In 1950, Kelly married Joyce Estella Lyle. The couple had three children, William Lyle Kelly (1952), and twins Brenda Joyce and Sharon Yvonne (1956).
Kelly returned to the United States in 1952, and two years later joined the 188th Airborne Regimental Combat Team at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He also took other assignments that led to his promotion through the ranks to Colonel in 1966. His last post before retirement was Fort Lewis, Washington.
Kelly continued to pursue educational credentials while in the Army. In 1948 he completed high school and in 1959 he received a B.A. in history from West Virginia State. One year later he received an M.A. in history from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
Upon retiring from the U.S. Army in 1966, Kelly became an educator. At the age of 40 he became the first African American hired in the Washington State Community College System when he began teaching at Everett Junior College. By 1967 Kelly had begun teaching history at Shoreline Community College in Shoreline, Washington, where he developed one of the first Black Studies programs in the United