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From dancing to flying: Las Cruces High grad to become Naval flight officer


By Mike Cook

Las Cruces Bulletin

Las Cruces High School and New Mexico State University graduate Leonard I. Thurman III has found his niche in the United States Navy.

Thurman, 33, will graduate from flight school later this year or early in 2023 in Pensacola, Florida and will become a winged Naval flight officer (NFO).

Because his vision wasn’t 20-20 when he applied for flight school, Thurman couldn’t qualify as a Navy pilot but he still qualified as an NFO, a mission commander who serves as onboard navigator and runs the mission systems. Thurman is working toward a private pilot’s license in his free time.

A native of California, Thurman was raised in Las Cruces and attended East Picacho Elementary School and Picacho Middle School (PMS) and graduated from LCHS in 2007. Thurman played trombone and euphonium in the PMS and LCHS band and earned the All-City Music scholarship to NMSU, spent a year in China through NMSU’s Study Abroad program and graduated in 2014 with a degree in ballroom dancing.

He taught the community of Las Cruces to dance for about 10 years, Thurman said, helping to spark local interest in salsa dancing, served on the board of Las Cruces SalsaFest, founded Salsa Night at Amaro Winery and ultimately moved to Denver to instruct at Colorado Dancesport.

In 2019, Thurman decided it was time for a change. He joined the Navy, enlisting as an avionics technician and 10 months later, applied to be a Naval officer.

“I really worked hard for that,” Thurman said in a telephone interview. “It’s been a long, crazy road,” he said, including five moves since his enlistment. When he graduates from flight school, Thurman hopes to be stationed in Jacksonville, Florida and wants to serve aboard big-wing aircraft.

Thurman said his path to the Navy has been “a little untraditional,” as he is a decade or so older than most of the other students in flight school. But serving in the Navy has been “a rich opportunity,” he said. “I’m very happy to be here. It was a great choice.”

Thurman said he is grateful for his career as a dancer and for the life experience and education he received in Las Cruces. He is especially grateful to his middle school band teacher, Tony Montaño, and to LCHS teacher Bob Wofford, who has since retired and is now a member of the Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education.

Montaño “always took an interest in me,” Thurman said. “He told me, ‘Hey, work hard.’ He recognized my talent and wanted to nurture that.”

Wofford was Thurman’s AP English and history teacher at LCHS, and Thurman served as his teacher’s aide.

“He started asking me about college,” remembers Thurman, who wasn’t sure how he would pay for it. Wofford “actually found me a scholarship. He went out of his way and found me some money, which was super helpful,” Thurman said.

“I don’t think I was the best student,” Thurman said. “I come from not the most easy home life. School was a good thing for me. I met the people that I needed to meet. I had the experiences that I had to have through the education system.”

At NMSU, Thurman gained leadership experience and “learned a lot,” he said. His mentor was dance teacher Betty Burgess.

“She was amazing,” Thurman said.

“I think that education, going to school is of the utmost importance for everyone in the world,” Thurman said.

Retired Marine aviator Gerald Carson of Las Cruces has been another important influence in Thurman’s life, he said, as were others who encouraged him to join the Navy. Thurman is also grateful, he said, to Dave and Midge Wilson of Las Cruces and their son and Thurman’s friend, Matt.

“They were like second parents to me,” he said.

“Would you ever imagine that you’re a dance instructor and then a Naval aviator?” Thurman said. “It’s definitely 100 percent possible. Whatever you put your mind to, you can do it.”