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Textbook Activist Mel Gabler, 89

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page B08

Mel Gabler, a small-town Texan who exerted an outsize influence on the textbooks that American elementary and secondary schools adopt, died Dec. 19 at a hospital in Tyler, Tex. He suffered a massive brain hemorrhage after a fall at his home in Longview, Tex., two days earlier. He was 89.

For more than 40 years, Mr. Gabler and his wife, Norma, pored over textbook publishers' offerings with a zeal that exceeded that of the most conscientious student as they looked for factual errors and examples of left-wing bias -- one and the same, as far the couple was concerned.

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Because Texas public schools make up the second-largest textbook market in the nation, behind California, and because Texas books are selected statewide instead of by individual districts, publishers often made their Texas offerings the template for the rest of the nation. And those books bore the unofficial Gabler seal of approval.

The Gablers, who began their work in 1961 after finding errors in one of their son's textbooks, came to recognize that they could have a powerful influence over the books the nation's schoolchildren would read. They also set in motion a process of review and selection that grows ever more rancorous across the country.

At their kitchen table, they founded the nonprofit Educational Research Analysts to examine textbooks eligible for adoption. They soon became well known statewide, often journeying to Austin to testify before the State Board of Education and confront publishers with their objections. After a few years, they were doing lectures and making appearances across the country and were almost as well known as Phyllis Schlafly, an opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, or James Dobson, founder of the Christian organization Focus on the Family.

As recently as last month, the Gablers' research group led a successful effort in Austin to force textbook publishers to define marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman. The group objected to the term "married partners."

In 1973, the Gablers complained that a U.S. history book they reviewed devoted six pages to Marilyn Monroe and only a few paragraphs to George Washington. A few years later, Mr. Gabler complained that textbooks were indoctrinating children with a philosophy of humanism that was alien to mainstream America. He also protested the influence of the women's liberation movement, which, he said, had "totally distorted male and female roles, making the women masculine and the men effeminate."

In 1992, Texas fined textbook publishers about $1 million for hundreds of errors the Gablers found in 10 U.S. history books that publishers and the state already had approved.

Melvin Nolan Freeman Gabler was born in Katy, Tex., and served in the Army Air Forces in the Azores during World War II. He worked for 39 years with the company now known as Exxon Mobil Corp., retiring in 1974. He and his wife formally incorporated Educational Research Analysts as a nonprofit organization in 1973.

Neal Frey, the group's director, said the staff in recent years has been made up of the Gablers, Frey and his wife and a Frey daughter. The annual budget is about $100,000.

Mr. Gabler's survivors include his wife of 62 years; two sons, James Gabler of Phoenix and Paul Gabler of Houston; and six grandchildren.

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