Floridians remember a man of the people
By DIANE RADO and ADAM C. SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1998
n the nation's capital, the committee debating the impeachment of the president of the United States came to a halt.
Gov. Lawton Chiles' sudden death Saturday afternoon brought a cavalcade of emotion, enough to stop even the most serious business in Washington, D.C.
The House Judiciary Committee considering President Clinton's fate observed a moment of silence after U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, announced Chiles' death. U.S. Rep. Charles Canady, R-Lakeland, whose father served as chief aide to Chiles in the U.S. Senate, fought back tears and delivered an impromptu eulogy.
Said Wexler: "Gov. Lawton was, I think, in most Floridians' eyes, the epitome of a fine and decent man, a throwback to the age when partisanship didn't play the role it plays. This man rose above party," Wexler said. "And he's just everything (that) embodied what's good about America."
Around Florida, people were remembering the last time they saw Chiles, what they were doing when they heard the shocking news of his death.
An emotional Rick Dantzler, a former state senator from Chiles' home county of Polk, was on a hunting trip when he checked in with his family and got the news. "There's never been one like him and never will be," Dantzler said.
State Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, was hunting, too, when his pager informed him Chiles had died. "I put my shot gun down and just kind of stared off into the distance and thought about how much respect I have for this man," he said. Grant called Chiles one of the most effective governors in Florida history, and noted that much of Chiles' accomplishments required him to work both sides of the aisle. "He didn't do things because they were political, he did them because he believed in them. And the most important issues to him were not partisan issues -- children and health and speaking up for people who couldn't necessarily speak up for themselves."
Well-known children's advocate Jack Levine, in Tallahassee, said he just saw Chiles when the governor's portrait was unveiled at the Capitol earlier this month. "He said just because the captain is retiring, that doesn't mean the game is over," Levine said.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik said it might have been fate. Chiles died just as his eight-year term as governor and his 40-year career in public service, was coming to an end.
"There's part of me that thinks God ordained this from the beginning," Turanchik said. "He (Chiles) had served such a long time, maybe that's all he was meant to be. For some people, their profession is their life."
At his final governor and Cabinet meeting last week, Chiles said he was speaking with the Clinton administration about a job -- he wouldn't reveal what role he might play -- but that he was lookingforward to hunting and fishing.
Instead, he leaves a state in mourning. Reaction to Chiles' death was far and wide Saturday.
Charles Canady Sr.: "He's the last of his breed, the last of the Cracker breed. I don't think we'll ever again see anyone like Lawton Chiles in public service. ... The thing that really sticks with me about Lawton is the feeling he had for people. He understood the working guy better than any person I have ever seen."
U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Longwood: "I will never forget visiting my tornado-ravaged area with him for nearly a full day earlier this year and the great compassion he showed. I feel the loss as a personal human being and as a leader."
Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg: "In his public life, Gov. Chiles did many good things for the people of this state and was always hospitable to myself and the other Catholic bishops of Florida during our yearly visit to Tallahassee. Even in matters with which we disagreed, we were able to do so with great respect. A long life of public service has come to a close, and we pray that eternal life will be given to our governor."
Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman: "Some people, perhaps, underestimated Lawton because he was a down-home guy and so homespun. But he had an incredible mind and so much political insight. President Clinton and eventually (Vice President) Gore could have definitely used his expertise."
Former Democratic state Sen. Helen Gordon Davis, of Tampa: "It's a terrible tragedy for the state, for all citizens of the state. He was a man that was truly a family man. By that, I mean he has done everything possible to strengthen families in this state. He's done more than any other governor to make Florida families healthy and strong."
State Rep. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg: "He identified so well with the people of Florida, and the people identified with him. Having been raised in Florida, he knew the old Florida and he knew the new Florida, and the people embraced that."
State Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey: "People will remember him as a kind human being who genuinely cared about people."
State Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach: "He's really one of the most incredible people I've ever met. Here he was, a tobacco-chewing, hunting, slow-talking, you think good-old boy type. But he's so progressive and farsighted. Of all the things I'll remember about him, he loved and embraced the children of Florida, like no other politician ever has."
Gail Davies, a Tallahassee resident who learned of Chiles' death as she was Christmas shopping: "He's the only politician I felt was a real person, not plastic. He's the type of guy you'd like to have a cup of coffee with. I just heard him talking the other day about how all of his kids and grandchildren were coming to Tallahassee for Christmas. "It was going to be their last Christmas at the mansion."