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Norma Gabler, 84; influenced school textbooks across the nation

August 06, 2007|Joe Holley | Washington Post

Norma Gabler, a small-town Texan who wielded nationwide influence over textbook adoption in public schools, has died. She was 84.

Gabler died July 29 of complications from Parkinson's disease at the Biltmore Assisted Living facility in Phoenix. She had lived in Longview, Texas, until this year, when she moved to Phoenix to be near her son.

For more than 40 years, Gabler and her husband, Mel, pored over textbooks with a zeal for thoroughness.

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

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

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

Their son James 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 at that time was as authoritative as textbooks in public schools. He resolved to seek out errors in the books assigned to his two sons and other Texas students. The Gablers found many.

They also discovered that Texas had a little-known process for citizen textbook review. Soon the Gablers were going to Austin to testify before the State Board of Education.

In 1961, they founded the nonprofit group Educational Research Analysts, described on its website 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 last week, 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.

Gabler and her husband were outspoken. They insisted that history books 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 grammatical errors and a passage saying that President Truman dropped an atomic bomb to end the Korean War.

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