In the Pipeline: Norma Gibbs has been a jewel for H.B.

Norma Gibbs' soft laughter blends peacefully with the wind chimes outside her airy and cozy Huntington Harbour home, which is all decorated for Christmas, complete with fresh-baked cookies and tea on the table.

She is recounting a moment from 1970, just before she became the first city councilwoman in Huntington Beach history. She and then-Mayor Don Shipley were in the process of battling developers that wanted to build high-rise buildings stretching for miles along our beachfront.

"When I explained to our head of the Chamber of Commerce why I was so against the idea, he said, 'Don't worry, Norma. There will be six feet of space between the buildings so that people will still be able to see the ocean when they drive by.'"

He also boasted of wanting to turn Huntington Beach into "the Miami Beach of the West."

"I'd been to Miami," said Gibbs, 88. "And I was not going to let that happen."

It was 50 years ago this month that the Cal State Long Beach professor moved to Huntington Beach from nearby Seal Beach, where she was mayor.

And how lucky we are that she did.

It almost didn't happen. When she first saw Huntington Beach, she noticed all the tin cans and tents on Bolsa Chica State Beach. She needed some convincing, which she received from her husband, who was working with the company that was developing Huntington Harbour.

Theirs soon became the first house on the block, and it's the same one was she lives in today. Recuperating from tuberculosis at the time, Gibbs recovered in an upstairs bedroom that overlooks the ocean. The day she saw whales out her window was the day she was convinced they'd made the right decision.

Impressed by her smarts and passion, then-Mayor Don Shipley convinced Gibbs to become part of the Recreation and Parks Commission. She was the first woman there too. That's where she got to know then-Parks and Recreation Director Norm Worthy. He helped Huntington Beach win hosting duties for the U.S. surfing championships in 1959.

Worthy was also on a mission to develop Central Park, which he did by painstakingly tracking down owners of the old "encyclopedia lots" — so dubbed because they were part of a marketing gimmick to promote the sale of encyclopedias — and buying the lots back. In 1968, in large part because of these efforts, Central Park opened.

In 1970, Shipley and Worthy convinced Gibbs to run for City Council so that there would always be a voice for things like Central Park and especially a new library in the park. Gibbs worked and fought tirelessly on behalf of that new library. She told me that her only dream back then was to live long enough to see it open.

But it was not easy.

"The mayor back then, George McCracken, said to me, 'Why do we need a big library? Who reads anymore? We have TV,'" Gibbs recalled.

Undaunted, Gibbs and others donated their own personal libraries to help Central Library become a reality.

Famed Austrian American architect Richard Neutra died during the building of the library, and so his son Dion took the project to completion.

In discussing the city today, Gibbs told me how proud she is that the fight for open space was as successful as it was.

"We received an award for having the best park system in the country and I'm still proud of that," she said. "We still have a wonderful system. Parks are scattered all around the city for everybody to enjoy.

"When I learned that the city had a goal to reach 200,000 in population, all of a sudden it became extra important to protect and preserve open space. People can't act like they live in mazes. People need open space to thrive."

While she is proud of all the parks, Gibbs just might have a particular fondness for Gibbs Butterfly Park, named for her in 1995.

One thing she's not crazy about, and I completely agree with her, are the racks of clothing that clutter the sidewalk at Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway.

"I consider that area our front yard," she said. "When people come to visit often it's the first place they see, and I find it deplorable. It looks tacky and Third Worldish. I can't understand how anyone thinks this is good for business."

The walls of the Gibbs home are loaded with plaques and tributes. In addition to her rich legacy in Huntington Beach, creating and preserving parks, bike paths, the beach and wetlands, and becoming our first female mayor, she also founded Interval House, a thriving shelter for victims of domestic violence.

During our visit, Gibbs — who suffered a major stroke last year but is as sharp as ever and recovering nicely — shared something that I had not known.

"For all the big signs that have my name on it, I think the one that stands out most to me is actually a very little sign."

The day the Central Library opened — April 2, 1975 — then-librarian Walter Johnson whispered to Gibbs that he had something special to show her. Leading her toward the back of the library, he pointed to a landing where he had personally (and secretly) affixed a small sign, not much bigger than a business card. It reads simply, "Norma Gibbs — She Listened."

He understood her efforts. And he wanted to honor her himself.

Johnson, also a sculptor, created a tall and beautiful papier-mâché piece that Gibbs has in her home. One day, it will stand at Central Library, she said. But that little sign is the thing that made the biggest difference for Gibbs.

"That library meant the most to me," she said. "And so I cherish that little gesture."

Several days later I went to the library and searched for the sign. My son and I wandered for an hour, but came up empty. Nervous that it might have been taken down, I phoned Gibbs to ask for a precise location. The next day her friend Kay Goddard was kind enough to bring Norma to the library so that she could show me herself.

The day before, I had been close enough to touch it without even realizing it. With a big smile, Norma looked up at that little sign and said, "It's still hard to believe this magnificent place was built. But I'm so glad that it was."

So are we, Norma, and we are also glad and quite fortunate that you chose this city to be the recipient of your magic.

Think about what you love most about Huntington Beach and I'll bet you have Norma, in some way, to thank for it.

From the Epting family to yours, wishing you a very merry Christmas and happy holidays.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at

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