Norma Gibbs, Huntington Beach’s first female City Council member and mayor, died of natural causes in her home Sunday. She was 94.
The trailblazer, originally from Chicago, is credited by her daughter, several longtime friends and former and current city officials for transforming what was once an oil and farmer-type town into the modern coastal community now known as Surf City.
Gibbs served on the council from 1970 to 1978 and was mayor from 1975 to 1976. She also served as a council member and mayor in neighboring Seal Beach — where she lived before moving to Huntington.
During her time serving Surf City, Gibbs championed the importance of maintaining open green space and pushed to develop the library in Central Park. She also battled against the notion — popular during her time — that high-rise buildings were bound to encroach on Huntington City Beach.
The avid reader and globetrotter accomplished several of her goals by blazing her own path during a time when men dominated politics, according to her daughter, Normajean Janssen.
Gibbs’ leadership encouraged traditional stay-at-home mothers to head to the polls and get involved in their community — creating a path for future leaders such as Barbara Delgleize and Jill Hardy, both of whom have followed in her footsteps and served as mayor.
Today, a majority of Huntington’s council members are women: Delgleize, Hardy, Councilwoman Kim Carr and Mayor Pro Tem Lyn Semeta.
“She didn’t even try to compete in a man’s world in a man’s way,” Janssen said. “She really, truly believed if you listened to someone and allowed them to speak and were calm, that you could work together easily — and that’s what she did.”
Gibbs also worked at Cal State Long Beach as a professor of educational psychology and a foreign student advisor for nearly 40 years.
She described her time there as “transformative,” according to a profile published by the university.
In 1979, she founded Interval House — a nonprofit that cares for those who have been abused — out of her Seal Beach home. Her commitment to public service earned her the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.
Interval House honored her with the award during a celebration of her 90th birthday at Gibbs Park, which was named after her in 1995.
This year, the nonprofit will celebrate its 40th anniversary thanks to Gibbs’ early and steadfast support, along with help from her friend and colleague Isa Smashey Rogers and the altruistic community, Executive Director Carol Williams said in a statement Thursday.
“She will always remain in the hearts of all of us who were a part of making Interval House a reality,” Williams said.
Gibbs viewed the creation of the library and senior center in Central Park as her two main accomplishments, according to Kay Goddard, a friend and former colleague at CSULB. A small plaque the size of a business card is placed on a stairwell inside the library in Gibbs’ honor.
Gibbs and Goddard became best friends after traveling the world together, visiting Tibet and the Antarctic. They later moved into Gibbs’ Huntington Harbour home together.
“She was very bright and managed her time so she could do and be involved in many things,” Goddard said. “She could take a power nap and be ready to go. I don’t know how she did it, but she was always game.”
Goddard, like several other friends, described Gibbs as a good listener who knew how to engage everyone in the conversation.
Ralph Bauer, a former council member, echoed Goddard’s sentiments, saying that Gibbs’ “calming influence” helped remind others to behave themselves. Bauer and his wife befriended Gibbs days after they moved to the community, when they bumped into her by a bookmobile.
“She’s one of the finest people I’ve ever met,” he said. “She brought a spirit of cooperation and spirit of consensus building, which enabled us to move forward with a lot of projects.”
Gibbs was so talented, Bauer said, she could’ve been the president of the United States.
Gibbs is survived by her four children.
A public celebration of Gibbs’ life is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sept. 21 at the senior center.