|Tripp Rasmussen 2 1/2, looks through the Governor's mansion gate after he and his parents placed flowers in tribute to the late governor, Lawton Chiles. [AP photo: Don Edgar]
Chiles' last journey to recall his famous first
By LUCY MORGAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 1998
ALLAHASSEE -- The body of Gov. Lawton Chiles will return to the tiny western Panhandle town of Century to start a slow procession across North Florida on Tuesday, a reminder of the 1970 journey that made him famous.
Chiles, 68, died Saturday after apparently suffering a heart dysrythmia, or abnormal heartbeat, while riding an exercise cycle at the Governor's Mansion early in the morning. His body was not discovered until shortly before 4 p.m. when he failed to appear at a mansion reception for Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents who guard the governor and his family, and the state pilots who fly his airplanes.
FDLE Commissioner James T. Moore said Chiles was not disturbed by agents on duty at the mansion because the governor emphatically objected to having agents looking over his shoulder in private areas at the mansion.
"That was his home, his personal retreat," Moore told reporters Sunday at a midafternoon briefing. "Those private quarters had no security cameras or electronic surveillance."
It wasn't unusual for Chiles to spend four, five, six or even seven hours at the cabana-recreation building a few yards behind the mansion. He often read, listened to tapes, talked on the telephone and exercised in the building, which included a sitting area and a fireplace in addition to exercise equipment.
Sometimes Chiles ordered lunch from the mansion and sometimes he stayed out there through lunch and didn't talk to FDLE agents at all. No one was particularly concerned when hours passed with no word from him.
"Gov. Chiles was known for a lot of good things, but punctuality was not among them," Moore added.
Chiles died within reach of a telephone and a few steps away from a panic button that would have summoned security agents.
Dr. David Stewart, medical examiner in Tallahassee, said Chiles apparently lapsed into unconsciousness as he was pedaling and fell over. He may not have felt anything as he died, Stewart said. The position of his body indicated he did not thrash around or attempt to get up.
"I think it was very quick," Stewart said as he described the death. "It looked like he fell off the right side of the bike. It is entirely probable he just passed out. It looked like he was riding and just rolled off, over the side."
One leg was still draped across the bicycle. A device that measured his heart rate was still attached to his wrist.
Stewart said Chiles' heart was seriously enlarged and believes that the stress of exercise caused it to beat abnormally. Although autopsy results are still preliminary, Stewart said he believes the governor died from a hypertensive cardiovascular disease or an abnormal heart rhythm.
Chiles took Cardizem cd, a blood pressure medication, and a single aspirin to thin his blood each day. He had his last physical in July 1997 and last visited his doctor Nov. 4 for treatment of bronchitis. Aides say he watched his diet very closely, exercised religiously and had no history of an irregular heartbeat.
FDLE agents last saw Chiles walking his dog, Tess, outside the mansion shortly before 8 a.m. He stopped by the duty room where agent Joe Brinson was about to complete his shift to pick up Tess, who spends her nights with the duty agent.
FDLE agents know Chiles entered the cabana area a few minutes later because a motion detector noted his entry. The mansion, a swimming pool and the 1,600-square-foot cabana are all inside a fenced enclosure that is closely monitored by security cameras and agents in the mansion duty room.
Tess, a mixed breed stray that Chiles adopted after she started hanging around the mansion, was in the exercise room with the governor when his body was found. FDLE agent Vince Curry discovered the body after Mrs. Chiles asked why her husband wasn't at the reception.
Stewart said he doesn't believe that Chiles' collapse could have been predicted or that Chiles could have been saved unless someone had been close by with a defibrillator to restart his heart. There is no defibrillator at the mansion.
Chiles had a history of heart ailments: He had a quadruple heart bypass in 1985. Some people with that history are at increased risk for sudden death, Stewart said.
Moore said Chiles made it clear to him when he was elected in 1990 that he didn't want security agents around him all of the time. The governor's frequent hunting trips into the woods of North Florida, Georgia and Alabama were always made without an FDLE agent, much to Moore's discomfort.
Moore said he worried less at the mansion, where it was simple to monitor anyone attempting to enter the grounds.
Agents had been instructed not to bother Chiles at the cabana unless he got calls from President Clinton, chief of staff Linda Shelley or someone else whose name was on the "pass through" list the governor approved, Moore said.
Saturday was unusually quiet, Moore said. Nobody on the list called the governor, so nobody interrupted him.
April Herrle, communications director for Chiles, said his family is entirely satisfied that he died from natural causes and could not have been saved.
Chiles' 1970 walk across Florida began in Century, a town so far west it is partly in Alabama. From there the relatively unknown state senator running for the U.S. Senate became "Walkin' Lawton," as he met voters and attracted attention that seldom went to such a newcomer.
"They gave me clothes, they gave me food and they put me up in their houses at night," Chiles said recently as he recounted the journey.
On Tuesday, Chiles will make the journey one last time. Then his body will lie in state at the Old Capitol, where the Legislature met when he was in the House and Senate in the 1950s and 1960s.
Funeral services will be at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. Burial will follow at Roselawn Cemetery in Tallahassee. After the service, the Chiles family will receive those who want to pay their respects at the mansion from 4 to 7 p.m.
Although longtime friends were shocked by Chiles' death, several said they believe the governor would have wanted to go quickly.
"At first I was mad and upset," said Mallory Horne, a longtime friend who served as speaker of the House and Senate president during Chiles' legislative days. "But I woke up in the middle of the night and realized it was okay. He died with his boots on, he was still governor, and now I'm sort of celebrating. He was a unique guy."
Outside the Governor's Mansion, where Mrs. Chiles and their four children and 10 grandchildren have gathered, flowers and mementos are beginning to pile up.
One visitor left a pair of used Reebok sneakers. Others left cards and roses, a burning Christmas candle and a teddy bear holding a single rose.
"The He-Coon walks in heaven tonight," read one card. "We'll miss you."