Longtime New Mexico State University President Gerald Thomas, who led the university from 1970-1984, died peacefully Wednesday at the age of 94.
From a building named in his honor at the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences to the many programs and scholarships he established, Thomas had a dramatic impact on the university both during his time as president and in the years that followed.
"Without contradiction, Gerald Thomas was the greatest president this university has ever had," said NMSU President Garrey Carruthers. "He had an unassuming way of connecting with all constituents - students, faculty, the public and our country. With his commitment to academics, research and outreach, he guided New Mexico State University through a time of tremendous growth in both enrollment and research funding. He had a wonderful sense of humor and loved both his work and this university. He will be greatly missed."
When he arrived in 1970, the main campus enrollment was 8,155 students, but by his retirement, enrollment had grown to more than 12,500 students. An additional 3,000 students were enrolled at NMSU's four community college campuses.
Thomas was born on a ranch on Medicine Lodge Creek, Small, Idaho, on July 3, 1919, to Daniel Waylett and Mary Evans Thomas. Because the Small school offered only 11 grades, his mother took him with his brothers to California to finish school where Thomas graduated from John Muir Tech with a high school diploma and from Pasadena Junior College with an Associate of Arts degree. During summers, Thomas was employed by the Salmon and Targhee National Forests where he was working for the Forest Service when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Soon after, he joined the U.S. Navy, serving as a carrier-based Naval Torpedo pilot. During the war, Thomas flew a Grumman AvengerÂTBM from three aircraft carriers - the USS Ranger, the USS Bunker Hill and the USS Essex. He served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters of Operation and survived a splashdown in the South China Sea, which he chronicled in his book, "Torpedo Squadron Four, A Cockpit View of World War II." He was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Air Medals and the Presidential Unit Citation.
Thomas married Jean Ellis on June 2, 1945, and their passion and love for each other continued for the next 67 years. Their first two children were born while Thomas worked for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service in Idaho. In 1950, they loaded up the family in a four-wheel trailer they made out of their old Model A Ford, and moved to College Station, Texas, where Thomas completed a Master's of Science and a Ph.D. in Range Science and was promoted to teaching and research positions. While in College Station, their third child was born.
In 1958, Thomas was named dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Texas Tech University. Gerald and Jean were beloved members of the Lubbock community and raised their children there.
In August 1970, Thomas was named president of New Mexico State University, serving 14 years in that capacity. As integral members of the Las Cruces community, Gerald and Jean considered this move one of the best decisions of their lives, which Gerald chronicled in his book "A Winding Road to the Land of Enchantment."
Thomas is the author or co-author of numerous books and more than 200 other publications. In 1984, NMSU named a million-dollar chair in agriculture in his honor and in 1988 designated the Agriculture and Home Economics Building as "Gerald Thomas Hall." He also helped organize the building of the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum.
Throughout his career, Thomas maintained a special interest in world food problems, environmental issues, natural resource management and history. He has had numerous honors and served on many boards including the State Board of Education, the Research Advisory Committee for the U.S. Agency for International Development and other state and national committees.
A memorial service open to the public will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 10, at First Presbyterian Church, 200 Boutz Road, Las Cruces. Following the service, a reception will be held at the church.
Gifts can be made in his name to the New Mexico State University Foundation (contact Deborah Widger at 575-646-4034 or firstname.lastname@example.org) or First Presbyterian Church.
To learn more about his WWII history, go to his website at http://www.airgroup4.com/ .