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Gov. Chiles dies

Apparent heart attack claims "He-Coon' at 68.

Staff and law enforcement officials salute as Chiles' body is taken away from the Governor's Mansion Saturday night. [AP photo]


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1998

TALLAHASSEE -- Just three weeks before he was to leave office, Gov. Lawton Chiles died suddenly of an apparent heart attack late Saturday afternoon.

Lawton Chiles

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Chiles photo gallery

Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay: a quick look at the man who will take over until Jeb Bush is sworn in.

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Chiles, 68, died while exercising in the gym at the Governor's Mansion. He was found by a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent. Emergency medical workers, who could not revive him, declared him dead shortly after 4 p.m.

The news quickly spread beyond Florida. From Jerusalem, President Clinton called Chiles "a statesman, a role model, and one of the most successful and respected public officials in the later half of the 20th century."

In Washington, the House Judiciary Committee took a break from impeachment proceedings against Clinton to observe a moment of silence.

The Floridian in the room who knew Chiles the longest was U.S. Rep. Charles Canady, R-Lakeland, whose father was Chiles' chief aide in the U.S. Senate.

Canady, close to tears, offered an impromptu eulogy.

"I knew Lawton Chiles from the time when I was a child. . . . He was a good man, he was a dedicated public servant. I didn't agree with him politically in recent years, but I had the utmost respect for him. . . . My prayers go out to his family."

In Tallahassee, shocked and saddened friends and staffers gathered at the Governor's Mansion. "He loved being governor," said Dan Stengle, Chiles' general counsel, after watching the governor's body pass through the mansion gates under the bright glare of television lights. "Lawton Chiles lived and breathed Florida."

Former General Counsel Dexter Douglass said Chiles may have been dead for "quite a while" when his body was found. He said Chiles usually exercised around 9 a.m. Douglass said Mrs. Chiles thought the governor had gone to his hunting lodge at Chemonie, northeast of Tallahassee, and didn't look for him until guests began arriving for a reception of state law enforcement agents at the mansion.

His body was taken to Tallahassee Community Hospital for an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

Reporters and members of the governor's staff gathered at the mansion shortly before 6 p.m. Saturday as word of Chiles' death spread.

Republican Florida Gov.-elect Jeb Bush, center, fields questions from the media outside the governor's mansion with Gov. Lawton Chiles after they had their first meeting together over lunch to begin the Bush administration transition on Nov. 10, 1998. [AP file photo]

A short time later the mansion's chef, a number of current and former staffers and FDLE agents, many of whom were at the mansion to attend the reception, walked solemnly beside the black van that took the governor's body from the mansion.

Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, defeated last month in his own bid to become governor, was to be sworn into that office for the next three weeks as soon as arrangements could be made. MacKay was in Cambridge, Mass., Saturday night but was called to return immediately to Florida. Aides said MacKay would be back in Tallahassee shortly after 11:30 p.m. Saturday and would immediately take the oath of office.

Friends said Chiles had been feeling good and making plans for life after eight years as governor. He was in Washington, D.C., Friday meeting with White House staffers, reportedly discussing a future that included working for President Clinton. Dexter said that Chiles was discussing becoming special envoy to Latin America. Just last week, he appointed two state Supreme Court justices, hosted several receptions at the mansion and presided at two meetings of the state Cabinet.

Gov.-elect Jeb Bush, who was in Miami when he heard the news, said he was "shocked and deeply saddened" by Chiles death.

"Our state has lost a legend who always stood up for those in need and who leaves a legacy of unequaled compassion for Florida's children," Bush said.

Chiles, who served more than 40 years in public life, fought to improve health care for all Floridians, especially children. Indeed, he dedicated his tenure as governor to children's causes.

The shining moment of his term came Aug. 25, 1997, when he and Attorney General Bob Butterworth announced Florida's multibillion-dollar settlement with the tobacco industry. Chiles was one of the nation's most vocal tobacco critics, and helped his cause by sneaking a law through the Legislature that stripped Big Tobacco of several key defenses.

"Lawton Chiles did more to bring tobacco down and to bring out the truth about tobacco than anyone else in the country," Butterworth said Saturday. "Winning the war against tobacco will be his greatest legacy."

Chiles was among the last of Florida's old-time Cracker politicians, known for a folksy style and a loyalty to old friends that critics called cronyism.

"I don't think we'll ever again see anyone like Lawton Chiles in public service," said Charles Canady Sr., his top Senate aide.

"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."

During his tenure, the Republicans took over the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Indeed, some thought he wouldn't win re-election in 1994 against Bush. But, declaring himself "the old he-coon (that) walks just before the light of day," Chiles managed to chalk up his final election win.

Chiles, who underwent a quadruple heart-bypass operation in 1985, was vigorous until his death, but had medical problems during his term. He suffered what many described as a minor stroke in July 1995 and was hospitalized for two days while undergoing tests. Doctors called it a transient ischemic attack brought on by a weekend of fishing in the hot Florida sun.

Although doctors said the attack might be a warning of an impending stroke, Chiles appeared to have fully recovered.

Saturday, friends recalled his wit and political know-how. He was known as a master of timing, often waiting until the last possible moment before entering the fray and pulling off victory.

"Nobody should have ever underestimated Lawton Chiles," said Butterworth, a fellow Democrat. "A political opponent may do it once, but never again.

"You and I could fish all day, but Lawton Chiles could walk up at the end of the day, stick his line in the water and catch a fish. He was that good."

Douglass, an old friend and college classmate who worked for Chiles and often accompanied him to University of Florida football games, was among those who rushed to the mansion Saturday afternoon.

"He's alive," a sobbing Douglass said. "All the children, clean government and all of those things are still alive through Lawton Chiles and will continue to be so in my lifetime. There was no more honest person than Lawton Chiles."

Chiles' political foes in the Legislature also praised the governor.

"When the sun sets, he will be remembered as one of the great governors in the state of Florida, for all he's done for children and the elderly," said a somber House Speaker John Thrasher from his home in Orange Park. "He was an excellent adversary, someone who always played tough but played by the rules."

House Minority Leader Les Miller of Tampa, said, "We just lost a great guy."

"He looked out for the working-class people. The children were his No. 1 priority."

Linda Shelley, chief of staff for Chiles, made the formal announcement of his death at the mansion's front gate shortly before 6 p.m. With the mansion flags already at half-staff, Shelley said Chiles died shortly before he was to have attended the reception.

"Gov. Chiles dedicated more than 40 years of public service to the state and people he loved," Shelley said. "His legacy is a living one, and it is seen in the face of every child who has health care. It lives in the home of every family that is better off today for his service. It is felt in the hearts of the people he touched and who touched him during a lifetime of service."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Saturday night. Staffers said plans were under way and would be announced as soon as possible.
-- Times staff writers Mary Jacoby, David Dahl, Adam Smith and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.


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