Enchanting People of New Mexico - Gerald Thomas

Welcome to the Fresh Chile Company Podcast - Enchanting Stories of New Mexico. Tune in to listen to all things New Mexico Chile, and other enchanting facts about New Mexico.
Click the picture above to see all of the ways that you can listen to this podcast or click one of these links to go directly there!
Spotify, Apple Podcast, iHeartRadio

Episode 1 - Gerald Thomas

Michael Swickard here. Welcome to Enchanting People of New Mexico. These Podcasts are sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our award-winning Hatch Green and Red Chile is brought straight to you from locally owned farms in Hatch, NM, The Chile Capital of the World. Hit subscribe to automatically get these Podcasts.

I want to tell you about someone who had an enormous impact upon New Mexico and specifically New Mexico Agriculture. So much so that the Agriculture Building on the campus of New Mexico State University has his name. It is Thomas Hall named for Dr. Gerald W. Thomas, the 17th NMSU President and it turned out the 2nd longest serving president.

This podcast is both historical and personal since I knew Dr. Thomas and his family. His very talented son David is a great historian and has written many books. Even better, that ability to publish books allowed him to help his father, Dr. Gerald Thomas, to publish three books about his service in WWII along with a great biography with some amazing stories.

I first met Dr. Thomas as he was interviewing for the president of the university in 1970. I was a member of the Student Senate and was very impressed with him. I was not a fan, at that time of the then current NMSU president, Roger B. Corbett. I have since revised my opinion and put Corbett in the top five of best NMSU presidents which also includes Dr. Thomas.

There is an old saying that occasionally you may need a lawyer, occasionally a doctor, occasionally an engineer, but you need agriculture, farming and ranching three times a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I could recount all the interesting facts about Dr. Thomas if I took a couple of weeks and spoke without stopping. Nope, I need to have some good green Chile stew at regular intervals so I just will hit the high spots and give you the ability to learn more about this important leader in agriculture. He has three books and a couple hundred articles. I would recommend the books.

Born July 3, 1919, in a log house in Idaho, he was one of six sons, the second oldest. His local school only went to the 11th grade, so he had to move to Pasadena California for his senior year and a couple years in community college. While at John Muir High School and at the Pasadena Community College, Gerald Thomas was the equipment manager of the baseball team which included the baseball great, Jackie Robinson. He was at that time a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps which is the reason when WWII broke out he enlisted immediately. Thomas got his Bachelor of Science degree in the field of Forestry in February 1941 from the University of Idaho located in Moscow, Idaho.

He was working near Yellowstone National Park when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and America entered the war. He hitchhiked to California and enlisted in the Navy Aviation Feb 5, 1942.

Dr. Thomas has an interesting book, Torpedo Squadron Four: A cockpit view of World War II. The book details his service as a Torpedo Bomber Pilot which is extensive over two and a half years in combat both in the Atlantic Theatre of Operations and the Pacific Theatre of Operations. In clear obviously unvarnished descriptions, you can see what life was like on an aircraft carrier in combat operations.

Thomas served on several Aircraft Carriers, the USS Ranger in the Atlantic and then in the Pacific he served on the USS Bunker Hill and the USS Essex. For his time in service at the end of the war he was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Air Medals and two Presidential Unit Citation for his actions in combat during World War II. Some of his fellow flyers were reactivated at the start of the Korean War but he was in college and they allowed him to continue his Masters of Science degree in Wildlife Management at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. He then got his Ph.D. in what was then called Range Management.

Throughout his professional career there were several agricultural themes such as dry land management which fit perfectly to his job at Texas Tech in Lubbock as the Dean of the Agriculture Department. At one time he was selected to be the second in command of the University but returned by his request to the Dean’s Office.

That brings us to when I first met then Dean Thomas from Texas Tech. He applied for the President of NMSU opening and I was a member of the Associated Students Senate and therefore watched the interviews of the potential next New Mexico State University president.

The current president was Roger Corbett who was in his 15th and final year as president. At the time we had clashed several times because he was quite authoritarian when dealing with students. Dr. Corbett made many very beneficial changes to the institution including changing in 1960 the name from New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts to New Mexico State University with the addition of Ph.D. degrees and enhanced research.

So I have come to really respect Dr. Corbett. He gave a going university to the next president. I was concerned because, and I don’t remember names, it seemed the person I liked the very best, Dr. Thomas was not favored over other candidates that to me were all talk.

Surprise. I was amazed and gratified when the announcement was made. Over the next fifty years I interacted with Gerald Thomas many times and had coffee with him and his very talented son David who is a screenwriter, historian, and author of eight very carefully researched books.

With a second in a row solid agricultural president, New Mexico State University jumped forward in the research of both plants and animals. This was a time of Chile research really coming on with Dr. Roy Nakayama and the introduction of Big Jim Chile which at the time held the Guinness Book of records for the longest Chile pods, perfect for Chile Rellenos.

On a more personal level, he managed by quietly walking around and understanding what the thinking of the various groups on campus centered upon. He spent his time listening and not talking all that much. When he did speak, people tended to listen.

Much of the research and the people who did the research are tied to Dr. Thomas and his management style. He attracted many researchers and areas of research that to this day have made our area more commercially viable such as Chile, Pecans, Cotton and Alfalfa.

Only a few of us remember that in 1970 The Journalism and Mass Communications Department at NMSU was trying to get a public television station off the ground. There was lots of political pressure in Albuquerque and Portales against a Las Cruces station since those stations wanted to instead place their own translators for their television signals in Las Cruces and adsorb the money for themselves.

Harvey Jacobs, the Chair of the Department, sent several of us to meet with Dr. Thomas. He was interested and then surprised us when he stood and said, “Let’s go look at what you have.” We did and he was sold. He saw the future in Milton Hall for KRWG-TV which went on the air in February 1972 with me as the Program and Production Director, unpaid volunteer roles that landed a Ford Foundation Grant and matching money from the New Mexico Legislature.

When asked about Dr. Gerald Thomas I always say that he understood the Institutional Identity of New Mexico State University as a Land-Grant University much like Roger Corbett. The two of them gave us 29 years of great leadership. We are better because of them both and I am grateful for the Agricultural leadership that Dr. Gerald Thomas provided.

I urge you to read his books, Torpedo Squadron Four: a Cockpit view of World War II, 2011, The Academic Ecosystem: Issues Emerging in a University Environment, 2012 and A Winding Road to the Land of Enchantment, 2012. We are all better because Dr. Gerald Thomas came to our little slice of paradise and brought his style of leadership and management.

This is the Enchanting People of New Mexico. These Podcasts are sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Hit subscribe if you want to automatically get these podcasts.

One thing that happens when people live in Las Cruces is that they can come by the Fresh Chile Company Gift Shop. It is located at 1160 El Paseo Rd, Suite D7A in Las Cruces, NM. It is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. No need for shipping when you live close by.

If you are living far enough away to ship: If you buy 12 jars, we offer Free Shipping if you live in the lower 48 states (excluding Alaska & Hawaii). Stock up and make sure you always have plenty of that which makes everyone smile: Hatch Valley Red and Green Chile. And a case of that delicious Chile would make a great present for someone who moved away and still has a taste for Hatch Valley Green and Red Chile.

Also, if you buy three jars, we will donate one jar of our award-winning Mama’s Salsa to a local food bank in New Mexico called, Casa de Peregrinos. They provide school lunches and much more to those in need in our community.

This is Michael Swickard with The Fresh Chile Company Podcast brought to you by The Fresh Chile Company. Thank you for your time today.

We will always have lots of News and stories about New Mexico for you on this Podcast, If you have something you want me to talk about in a future podcast write to: michael@freshchileco.com

Have a great rest of your day. Oh yes and eat plenty of that good Hatch Valley Chile. Like I always say, “Some Chile is good, more is better.” Bye for now.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.