George Alexander Kelly was born outside of Perth, Kansas, on April 28, 1905. He was the only child of a Presbyterian minister, Theodore Vincent Kelly, and Elfreda Merriam Kelly—who was, according to Fay Fransella quoting Kelly in a biographical sketch for the International Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology, "the daughter of a Nova Scotian captain of a sailing ship who was driven off the North Atlantic Trade routes by the arrival of steamships." His grandfather had gone then to trade in the Caribbean, settling in Barbados where Kelly's mother was born. Fransella noted that it was "interesting that the 'spirit of adventure' symbolized by this maternal grandfather," later "seeped into the spirit of Kelly's later psychological theorizing."

Kelly's father left the ministry when his son was very young in order to pursue a life of farming. In 1909 the family moved by covered wagon to eastern Colorado to stake a claim on what would be the last of the free land offered to settlers. When the scarcity of water made farming there too difficult, the family returned to Kansas. Both of his parents took part in Kelly's education. The evidence suggested that until he went away to boarding school in Wichita at the age of 13, he had virtually no formal schooling outside of his home. He stayed in Wichita from late 1918 until 1921, when he entered Friends' University academy and took college and academy courses. Kelly enjoyed telling people that he had no high school diploma, having gone to college early. While still at Friends', Kelly was awarded first place in the Peace Oratorical Contest held there in 1924. His speech was titled "The Sincere Motive" and was on the subject of war. He left Friends' and in 1926 completed his bachelor's degree from Parks College in Missouri, where he majored in physics and mathematics. These two subjects would guide his direction and help him formulate his psychology. Any disadvantage he might have had as a student was due to the fact that he was interested in everything but had no specific career plans for the future. He had given some thought to a career in engineering, but changed his mind.

After Parks, he returned to Kansas, where he studied educational psychology at the University of Kansas for a master's degree. He did not receive that degree until 1928, after he took a few more detours for a year. In 1927 with his thesis not completed, Kelly moved to Minneapolis with the intention of enrolling in the University of Minnesota. While there he taught various classes, such as public speaking to labor organizers and bankers through the American Bankers Association, and citizenship classes to immigrants. By the winter of that year he realized he could not afford the school's fees, and left to take a job teaching psychology and speech, and coaching drama at Sheldon Junior college in Sheldon, Iowa. Kelly met his future wife, Gladys Thompson, while there. Perhaps without realizing what it meant for his future in psychology, he also began to build his base of using drama in psychotherapy, or what would commonly come to be known as role-playing. He was able to complete his master's thesis—a study of the leisure-time activities of workers—and received his degree from Kansas in 1928. In addition to the courses necessary for completion of this degree, Kelly also studied labor relations and sociology as his minors. Following a few other short-term jobs, Kelly received a fellowship for an educational exchange in order to attend the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. By 1930 he completed a bachelor of education degree there with a graduating thesis that addressed the issue of predicting teaching success. Kelly knew by then that he wanted to pursue a doctorate in psychology. While at the University of Iowa where he studied under Carl Seashore, Kelly focused his dissertation work on the common factors in reading and speech disabilities. In just one year, Kelly had a Ph.D. America was in the midst of the Depression years as he finally left school in search of a job.

In an essay he wrote in 1963, "Autobiography of a Theory," Kelly recounted his very first course in psychology as a student. Kelly noted that:

In the very first course in psychology that I took I sat in the back row of a very large class, tilted my chair against the wall, made myself as comfortable as possible, and kept one ear cocked for anything interesting that might turn up. One day the professor, a very nice person who seemed to be trying hard to convince himself that psychology was something to be taken seriously, turned to the blackboard and wrote an 'S,' an arrow, and an 'R.' Thereupon I straightened up my chair and listened, thinking to myself that now, after two or three weeks of preliminaries, we might be getting to the meat of the matter.

Kelly never did find out what this exercise meant, but went on in the same essay to say that:

Out of all this I have gradually developed the notion that psychology is pretty much confined to the paradigms it employs and, while you can take off in a great many directions and travel a considerable distance in any of them—as indeed we have with stimulus-response psychology—there is no harm in consorting with a strange paradigm now and then. Indeed the notion has occurred to me that psychology may best be regarded as a collection of paradigms wooed by ex-physicists, ex-physiologists, and ex-preachers, as well as a lot of other intellectual renegades. Even more recently it has struck me that this is the nature of man; he is an inveterate collector of paradigms.

Even Kelly found it interesting that of all the years of his education, and through his various degrees, that his Ph.D. would be in psychology, a subject in which he majored for a total of nine months. He said that he would not recommend such a plan for his students.

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