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Former NMSU president and wife receive distinguished College of Agriculture award

Former New Mexico State University president Gerald Thomas, and his wife Jean Thomas, have been awarded the Sam Steel Exemplar Award from the College of Agriculture and Home Economics Sam Steel Society.

Former New Mexico State University President Gerald Thomas and his wife Jean, center, stand with College of Agriculture and Home Economics Associate Dean Wes Holley, left, and Dean Lowell Catlett, right. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas received the first-ever Sam Steel Exemplar Award at the Sam Steel Society induction ceremony at the NMSU Music Center Recital Hall on Dec. 15. (NMSU photo by Victor Venegas)

The award, which is being given for the first time, is for individuals or couples who have excelled in their chosen field and who have been active in the community and greatly involved with NMSU.

"The principal reason we wanted to give the award to graduates was to acknowledge them," said Lowell Catlett, agriculture dean. "But, we also wanted to honor a person, or couple, that graduates and students could have as role model. Gerald and Jean are absolutely exemplary in the way they have conducted their lives."

When Gerald Thomas took over as president in 1970, NMSU's main campus enrollment was 8,155. At the time of his retirement in 1984, enrollment had grown to more than 12,500 students. An additional 3,000 students were enrolled at NMSU's four community colleges.

"I was president for 14 years and I still have an office on campus," Gerald Thomas said. "Since 1970, that's been quite awhile. I have been hand-in-glove involved at NMSU in every activity. The main goal (during my presidency) was to strengthen the teaching and enlarge outreach with extension and branch campuses. My goals really have continued through years, it is just a matter of how to implement them."

In 1984 Jean Thomas was honored by the NMSU Board of Regents with the "Regents Medal" for outstanding services in support of people and programs of the university.

"It's important to emphasize that although Gerald was president, his wife Jean had a distinguished career in her own right," Catlett said. "Together, the two have been positive influences. Not only NMSU role models, but for all walks of life. They are a couple that is a blessing to New Mexico."

Later, a College of Education scholarship was established in Jean Thomas' name to recognize her interest in the teaching profession and her dedication to high standards for students and faculty at NMSU.

"All my life I've believed in continuing education, and before I married I taught school in Pocatello, Idaho," said Jean Thomas. "We moved to Texas and lived there, but our great and biggest love has become New Mexico, New Mexico State University and Las Cruces."

Gerald Thomas also maintains that education is a pivotal portion of an individual's life that should never end.

"Education is a continuing process," he said. "You get a degree, then you have something. But, you have to keep an open mind and have to be willing to learn from interactions and events and continue to study. There's a sculpture on campus called 'The Joy of Learning,' and there has to be excitement and joy in the process of gaining knowledge. More knowledge gained makes you feel more at home in world, whether here or abroad."

Though this is not the first award either of the couple has received, Jean Thomas said being given the Sam Steel Exemplar Award is special for a particular reason.

"To share an award with Gerald pleases me greatly," she said. "I'm also so proud it is offered in the College of Ag. I grew up on a farm and ranch and have always had a deep love and interest in agriculture."

Among other honors and accomplishments in 1998, Gerald Thomas received NMSU's first Hiram Hadley Founder's Award of Excellence in recognition for "his key leadership in the development of a major comprehensive university in the spirit of NMSU's founding leader." He has also published "The Academic Ecosystem," "Torpedo Squadron Four," "Victory in World War II: The New Mexico Story," and "In Celebration of the Teacher." Since his retirement, Gerald Thomas has served as consultant for the Consortium for International Development, the U.S. Agency for International Development and several universities, as well as completing a six-year term on the New Mexico State Board of Education.

The Thomases, who have been married for more than 60 years, were given the Branding Iron award in 2000, the highest honor presented by the New Mexico State University Foundation, in recognition for their many contributions to the growth of the university

Today, Gerald Thomas is working on World War II research and has established a website, http://www.airgroup4.com, regarding Air Group Four, which he was a part of as a torpedo squadron member. Jean Thomas recently celebrated her 87th birthday and continues to serve the community and her family.