Holm O. Bursum III, a prominent Socorro banker, who, as a youngster, witnessed the detonation of the atomic bomb at Trinity Site, died Tuesday. He was 84.
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.
Ryan Cangiolosi, outgoing chairman of the state Republican Party, said Bursum made a lasting mark on New Mexico “and his legacy is an example for future generations.”
“Holm was a public servant, a philanthropist, a businessman, and a faithful Republican who always gave back to the community in Socorro and worked to make New Mexico better,” Cangiolosi said in a statement. “Holm lived a rich life and capably continued his family’s legacy of service to our state. Our prayers are with his family as they mourn his loss.”
Born in Roswell, his folks relocated to Socorro in 1942, when Holm was 8. He was raised on a ranch 30 miles east of Socorro in an area known as Jornada del Muerto Basin.
He reminisced 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. He graduated from New Mexico State University with a BS in animal husbandry.
The sprawling Bursum Ranch covered about 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.
“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 of 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, but because of 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.
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 U.S. Air Force.
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” 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.”
Earle died in 2014. They were together 56 years.
Holm’s funeral will be Dec. 11, at Garcia Opera House in Socorro.
He is survived by four children, Holm O. Bursum IV, Elizabeth Spencer, Julia Bursum and Michael Bursum.
Journal staff contributed to this report.