Museum co-founder passes away at 94

Aug 12, 2013

Dr. Gerald Thomas had many titles husband, father, patriot, author, educator, historian, war hero.

But Thomas, who died at 94 on July 31, also was considered one of the co-founders of the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum.

Dr. William P. Stephens, the former director and Secretary (1972-1988) of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA), is often credited with the vision for preserving the history of farming and ranching in New Mexico. He was worried that this history was being lost, both as early twentieth century settlers passed away and as valuable artifacts and archival collections left New Mexico. He conceived of a program that would recognize pioneering and long-time farm and ranch families.

His thoughts were reinforced and refined by Thomas, the newly appointed president of New Mexico State University (NMSU) in 1970. Having been involved in the creation of the Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech University in the late 1960s, Thomas encouraged Stephens' vision. Over several years the men shared the vision with agricultural producers around the state, leading to the first formal meeting of farmers, ranchers, and other interested persons in 1987.

Legislation was passed in the early 1990s to create the museum and the building opened in 1998. In his later years, Thomas was a frequent visitor to the museum and always supported the facility and its mission.

Thomas was born July 3, 1919 in Idaho and joined the U.S. Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He served as a carrier-based Naval Torpedo pilot and flew 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 4-wheel trailer they made out of their old Model A Ford, and moved to College Station, Texas, where Gerald completed a MS 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.

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, the Thomases 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 over 200 other publications. In 1984, New Mexico State University named a million-dollar chair in his honor and in 1988 designated the Agriculture and Home Economics Building as "Gerald Thomas Hall." Throughout his career, Dr. Thomas maintained a special interest in world food problems, environmental issues, natural resource management and history.

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For information contact Craig Massey at craig.massey@state.nm.us.