Socorro said good-bye to one of its leading citizens this week.
Holm Olaf Bursum III, a prominent Socorro banker, who as a youngster witnessed the detonation of the atomic bomb at Trinity Site, died Dec. 4. He was 84 years old.
A third-generation New Mexican and lifelong resident of Socorro, Bursum was president and CEO of the family business, First State Bank, a position he held since 1987.
He had served on the Socorro City Council and as chairman of the Socorro County Commission. In 1995, Bursum was appointed to the New Mexico Highway and Transportation Commission and served as chairman from 1995-2003. During those years, the bonds were issued to build, reconstruct and complete the Interstate 40/Interstate 25 (Big I) Project in Albuquerque.
He was honored with a New Mexico Distinguished Public Service Award in 2004 for residents who have made commendable contributions to public service and their communities.
Attorney Jerry Armijo, a long-time family friend, has been quoted as saying that throughout the years Bursum always has advocated for the community and was very vocal about it.
“He’s one of those guys who absolutely believed Socorro is the best place to live,” Armijo said.
“There’s a lot of history and heritage here,” Holm reflected in the book by Ron Hamm, The Bursums of New Mexico. “A big part of Socorro’s population has been here for generations, and that gives it a strong character.”
Socorro’s mayor, Dr. Ravi Bhasker said Bursum went out of his way to help him get started when he moved here in 1977.
“He was really instrumental in helping me start my practice,” Bhasker said. “He referred all the bank employees to me. That was a very seminal moment for me. To help get my practice started. They’ve been very generous to me and my family.”
Bhasker said Bursum would send the Bhaskers a shipment of grapefruits at Christmas.
“I eat ‘em like oranges,” he said. “I’ve known all the family forever; the two daughters and two sons.”
Bhasker said Bursum had a way of greeting him, throwing his arm over his shoulder.
“I would always tell him, ‘Holm, you’re putting the Vulcan pinch on my shoulder. He would always grab you by the shoulder there,”' Bhasker laughed. “And I’d tell him I’ll do whatever you want.”
“We had a great relationship. It was at a personal level,” he said. “As well as my medical, my professional and political level.”
He said the relationship was always positive.
“And, you know, I’m a Democrat, and he was a cornerstone Republican, and we got along just fine,” Bhasker said.
Armijo echoed those thoughts.
“Although he was a strong Republican, at the same time he was respectful of Democrats,” Armijo said in The Bursums of New Mexico. “He was also respectful of other’s political backgrounds and of their right to have a differing opinion.”
Bhasker pointed out that Bursum’s grandfather – the first Bursum to settle in New Mexico in the 1880s – was a U.S. Senator.
“He tried to get the state capital in Socorro, when they started fighting with Las Vegas for it,” he said. “And that fight ended up with the capital going to Santa Fe.”
The whole family is significant in the history of Socorro.
“They always knew New Mexico Tech was a mainstay for our economic benefit and they always supported it,” Bhasker said. “They supported it financially, and they supported it physically. They were always behind whomever it was running Tech. Always one hundred percent behind them. And that was to the benefit of our city.”
As one-time Chairman of the State Highway Commission (now the New Mexico Highway Transportation Commission) Bursum followed in his father’s footsteps.
“You know, they control the purse strings of the highway department,” Bhasker said. “His father was the chairman of the highway commission when they put the interstate in, and he wanted the interstate to curve right where Socorro entered, so that it would be easier to exit into Socorro rather than continuing on the interstate. That’s exit 150.”
Bhasker said Bursum was “one of the more important people in the history of Socorro.”
Born in Roswell, his folks relocated to Socorro in 1942, when Holm was eight.
He remembered in a 2014 interview of spending summers and as much free time as possible on the Bursum Ranch.
Banking was a far cry from his first love, ranching and cattle; having graduated from New Mexico State University with a bachelor of science in animal husbandry.
Before relocating to Roswell, “we lived at the old stagecoach stop for the Ozanne Stage Line,” Holm said. “In the old days a stage coach from Carthage came through there on its route to San Antonio to meet the train.”
The sprawling Bursum Ranch covered something like 300 square miles.
“It was basically put together by lots of homesteads,” he said in one interview. It was originally a sheep ranch, but later they ran cattle.
By the early 1940s parts of the ranch’s acreage was acquired by the U.S. Army for the new White Sands Bombing Range. But as an 11 year-old, Holm loved to spend the night in the bunkhouse, and it was there he was an accidental witness to history.
It was summertime, 1945, and Holm said he may have been the closest civilian to the Trinity atom bomb test – only 16 miles away – on the morning of July 16.
“Highway 380 cuts through the center of our old ranch,” Bursum said. “The military had taken over the south portion – one half of the ranch - from 380 down to three miles north of what is now the Trinity Site. In fact, 99 ranchers were displaced. The military said the ranches would be returned three years after the end of the war. They never were.”
Bursum said he actually spent his first eight years on the ranch, and spent most summers there throughout his youth.
“We lived at the old stagecoach stop for the Ozanne Stage Line,” Bursum said. “In the old days a stage coach from Carthage came through there on its route to San Antonio to meet the train.”
“That summer I was staying in an adobe building, four miles east of Bingham and 16 miles north-northeast of the shot,” he said. “The army had blocked part off the highway (Highway 380), and there was a military presence in San Antonio. We later learned they were there to evacuate Socorro if the radioactive cloud blew over it.”
The test was scheduled for midnight. Due to a big thunderstorm, was rescheduled for just before sun up.
At 16 miles away the detonation at 5:30 a.m. shook the building in which Bursum was sleeping.
“I slept in a top bunk in a bunk bed against the south wall of the adobe place that morning, and it woke me up,” he said. “It shook the house pretty good and rattled all the cans, and it was bright as morning.
“For a minute I thought the sun was coming up in the south,” he said. “We had no idea what it was. It was announced later that an ammunition dump had blown up."
“On a ranch 10 miles east of us there was a kid who visited us that summer to go horseback riding, things like that,” Bursum said. “He was outside the house in his yard at the time of the blast. He said, ‘I just glowed in the dark’.”
Bursum said all the cattle that were within range of the explosion “were turned white on one side.”
“There was one sheepherder whose hair was turned white,” he said. “Another rancher, Mac Smith, had a black cat which was also white on one side. He sold it to a tourist for five dollars.”
He said that a few years later he was able to find ground zero with some friends.
“When the army left, all the ranches were abandoned. It was empty ranchland,” Bursum said. “In the early 1950’s, two or three of us rode our horses down to the Trinity Site. This was before it was fenced off. There was a big circle of green sand, somewhere around 50 to 70 yards in diameter. We walked all over it. It didn’t seem to cause us any health problems.”
It wasn’t until he left military service that he entered the fiduciary world. His first job in the banking business was in 1959 at Albuquerque National Bank.
“I was planning on coming down here and work for my dad here at the bank,” Holm once said. “I guess I had mentioned it to my dad and he said, ‘No, get a job with somebody else and learn on somebody else’s money.’”
That was just a few months after his wedding. He and Earle Powell were married in Roswell and had their wedding reception at his boyhood home in Roswell in 1958 while Holm was still a Captain in the United States Air Force.
But their courtship began while Earle was still a student at the University of New Mexico.
“A cousin of mine lived in Albuquerque. My oldest cousin, Earl Puckett. His wife was Earle’s sorority house mother at the University of New Mexico,” Holm said. “She introduced us. She said, ‘I want you to meet our cousin.’ And Earle told her, I got the story later, ‘I’ll meet him and have a cup of coffee with him, but that’s it.’"
“We had that cup of coffee and finally ended up going out to dinner.”
Coming from divergent backgrounds, Earle, a Democrat, and Holm, a Republican, made a pact, a spousal agreement before getting married.
Holm is quoted in The Bursums of New Mexico, as saying, “When we first got married I made a deal with Earle. She agreed to join the Republican Party if she could raise the kids as Episcopalians (Holm’s background is Presbyterian). ‘Let the kids be Episcopalians, and I will be a Republican,’ she said."
Holm said his mother-in-law, Jane, told him early on she would give coffees and offer other kinds of help if he ever decided to run for office, but “just don’t expect me to vote for you.”
Earle passed away in 2014. They were together 55 years.
In 1998 Holm was named Distinguished Alumnus for New Mexico State University's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
In introducing Holm, Jerry Schickedanz, interim dean and chief executive officer of the college, said, "His letterhead describes his position at the First State Bank of Socorro as president, CEO and cashier. I guess that is Holm Bursum's way of saying, you are not a number at his bank." Schickedanz added, "He also is chairman of the board."
Holm’s funeral was Tuesday at Garcia Opera House.
Eulogies by his children were spiked with humor and reflected on his enjoyment of life. Cuatro, Elizabeth, Julia and Michael shared memories and vignettes, with Michael entreating the crowd to respond to several anecdotes of his father’s life with, “Thank God, cowboy!”
Cuatro remarked that the bank’s Board of Directors was comprised of his brothers and sisters. As president and CEO, “it was a way Dad could see all his children at the monthly meetings,” he said.
Remarks were also given by Rep. Don Tripp and family friend Jerry Armijo. Lt Gov. John Sanchez presented the family with a proclamation honoring Bursum’s accomplishments and his love for his family, his home town and the state of New Mexico.