Norma Gabler; Conservative Texan Influenced Textbooks Nationwide

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007

Norma Gabler, 84, a small-town Texan who wielded nationwide influence over textbook adoption in the public schools, died July 29 of complications of Parkinson's disease at the Biltmore Assisted Living facility in Phoenix.

She had lived in Longview, Tex., until this year, when she moved to Phoenix to be near her son.

For more than 40 years, Mrs. Gabler and her husband, Mel Gabler, pored over textbook publishers' offerings with a zeal and thoroughness that public school teachers could only envy.

Sphinx-like in their dedication and ferocity, they guarded the schoolhouse door against factual errors and what they perceived as left-wing bias. Usually one and the same in their view, the transgressions they spotted were often enough to knock the offending book from the running for statewide adoption.

Mrs. Gabler and her husband, who died in 2004, exercised their outsize influence primarily because Texas public schools make up the largest textbook market in the country after California. Publishers often make their Texas offerings their national prototype.

The Gablers launched their textbook crusade in 1961 while living in Hawkins, Tex.

Son James Gabler recalled that when he was assigned to recite the Gettysburg Address, he looked it up in the World Book encyclopedia and discovered two versions -- a photograph of the text carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial and a printed version that did not include the words "under God."

Mel Gabler recognized that the World Book in those days was as authoritative as textbooks were in public schools. He resolved to seek out errors in the books that his two sons and other Texas students were assigned to read and study. The Gablers found many.

They also discovered that Texas had a little-known process for citizen textbook review, which few people used. Soon the Gablers were going to Austin to testify before the State Board of Education, wielding Texas-size clout far beyond the state line.

In 1961, they founded the nonprofit Educational Research Analysts, described on its Web site as "a conservative Christian organization." According to the site, areas of concern include evolution, phonics-based reading instruction, respect for Judeo-Christian morals, abstinence and the influence of political correctness.

"Obviously my parents had always been of a conservative persuasion," James Gabler said yesterday, noting that his father had founded a Christian drive-in theater in Longview. "But their interest in textbooks started out with an issue of accuracy. The two interests kind of grew up together."

Within a few years, the Gablers had become, in the words of a Rice University professor who headed the state's Council for Science Education, "the most effective textbook censors in the country." Publishers produced their books with a sense of the Gablers looking over their shoulders.

Mrs. Gabler and her husband were nothing if not outspoken. They insisted that history book publishers describe the Reagan administration's action in Grenada as "a rescue," not "an invasion." They said that the women's liberation movement had "totally distorted male and female roles, making the women masculine and the men effeminate."

In 1992, Texas fined textbook publishers almost $1 million for hundreds of errors the Gablers found in 10 U.S. history books the state had approved. The mistakes they were credited with discovering included bad grammar and a passage saying President Harry S. Truman dropped an atomic bomb to end the Korean War.

Mrs. Gabler was born Norma Elizabeth Rhodes in Garrett, Tex. After marrying in 1942, she worked as a homemaker while her husband worked for Humble Pipeline (now Exxon Mobil); the family lived in a succession of Texas towns.

Although Mel Gabler continued working for Exxon until retiring in 1974, the couple's textbook mission took over their lives. James Gabler recalled going home from college and finding his old bedroom crammed with books and file cabinets. His parents often worked at the kitchen table.

"They were a good team," he said. "My mother was more outgoing, so she did the public appearances. My dad loved detail stuff; it fit his personality."

Mrs. Gabler continued her textbook efforts until her husband's death and her illness caused her to slow down.

Besides James Gabler, survivors include another son, Paul Gabler of Houston; a brother; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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