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World War II fighter pilot, former CASNR Dean Gerald Thomas dies at 94

World War II fighter pilot, former CASNR Dean Gerald Thomas dies at 94

Gerald Thomas, who served as Dean of Agricultural Sciences at Texas Tech University from 1958 to 1970, has died. He was 94. Thomas passed away peaceably on Tuesday (July 30), his family said.

During his tenure at Texas Tech, Thomas had additional short-term assignments as Deputy Director of the Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Land Studies and Acting Executive Vice-President. In 1969, Texas Tech established the, “Gerald W. Thomas Outstanding Agriculturalist Awards,” which recognized individuals for contributions to various areas of Texas agriculture.

Born on a ranch on Medicine Lodge Creek in Idaho, Thomas graduated high school from John Muir Tech in California and received an associate of arts degree from Pasadena Junior College. During summers, Thomas was employed at the Salmon and Targhee National Forests where he worked with forest service staff when World War II began.

Thomas joined the U.S. Navy, serving as a carrier-based Naval Torpedo pilot. He flew a Grumman Avenger TBM from three aircraft carriers – the USS Ranger, the USS Bunker Hill and the USS Essex. Thomas 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 in 1945, and remained with her 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, the family moved to College Station, where Thomas completed a master’s degree and doctorate in range science at Texas A&M. While in College Station, their third child was born.

Thomas served in several teaching and research positions at Texas A&M, prior to being named dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Texas Tech.  In August 1970, Thomas was named president of New Mexico State University. He served 14 years in that post.

Thomas was the author or co-author of numerous books and more than 200 other publications. In 1984, New Mexico State named a $1 million-dollar chair in agriculture in his honor and in 1988 designated the university’s 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 served on the New Mexico State Board of Education and the Research Advisory Committee for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Written by Norman Martin

CONTACT: Michael Galyean, Dean, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, Texas Tech University at (806) 742-2808 or


Editor’s Note: 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, NM. 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  or First Presbyterian Church.


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