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Widow stays strong in grief

Rhea Chiles' friends say Florida's first lady is reflecting on the good her husband did during his 40 years of public service.

In a 1992 photo, Gov. Lawton Chiles' daughter Rhea MacKinnon leans against him with her new baby boy as husband Alex and mother Rhea Chiles look on. [Times files, 1992: Jim Damaske]


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 1998

This was supposed to be the beginning of a new chapter for Rhea and Lawton Chiles, winding down a lifetime of politics and public service.

Lawton Chiles
Instead, Rhea Chiles now finds herself packing up and preparing to leave the Governor's Mansion without her partner of nearly 48 years. Instead, she finds herself suddenly preparing funeral arrangements befitting a Florida icon. Instead, she finds the future looking suddenly uncertain, nothing like she planned.

"They had just built that new house and were so looking forward to doing whatever they wanted to do," said Sarah McKay of Lakeland, a longtime friend of the Chiles family. "They were so excited about the future. This is such an awful blow to the family. This was the last thing anybody expected."

As guests started arriving for a reception for state law enforcement officers Saturday afternoon, the 68-year-old first lady asked about her husband, whom she hadn't seen since that morning. Moments later, Lawton Chiles, 68, was discovered lying beside an exercise bike, dead of an apparent heart dysrhythmia.

Countless widows and widowers can relate all too well to the shock and grief Mrs. Chiles is undoubtedly experiencing. But Mrs. Chiles, the consummate first lady and polished political partner, must handle the pain with the state watching and at a time when her life already was in upheaval.

"She's such a public person, she's in this position where she has to show she has it all together, and she really doesn't," said Judy Tatelbaum, a California psychotherapist and author of The Courage to Grieve.

Gov. Chiles and First Lady Rhea Chiles speak with students about the history of Florida's Governor's Mansion at Coral Gables Elementary School in Coral Gables in May 1997. [AP photo: Jeffrey Boan]

"When it happens so unexpectedly, I would expect her to feel very numb, like it's a dream. . . . Even though there's nothing she could have done, there's always guilt with a loss. I hope she has intimates in her life where she can express her feelings," Tatelbaum said.

Mrs. Chiles is receiving an outpouring of community support and adulation for her husband that will help dull her immediate pain, said Vanderlyn R. Pine, an authority on grieving and a sociology professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "But it will be bittersweet for her, because 68 is not particularly old. . . . One of the losses that tends to be fairly profound when a spouse dies is the sense that the future is gone. The loneliness of life without a spouse becomes more apparent with time. I suspect she will have an ongoing struggle dealing with it."

Friends who have spoken to her said Mrs. Chiles is holding up remarkably well, talking about how happy her husband was and how much he had accomplished in his last term.

"Rhea is so strong, and she's very philosophical about this," said Marjorie Feagin, a Tallahassee resident and friend of the family. "Though her loss is tremendous, she really has the wherewithal to look for the good things. She feels like he was at the top of his game."

Mrs. Chiles told another longtime friend, Susan Wadsworth, how terribly she will miss her husband, but how thankful she was at the same time.

"She feels very grateful that he got to finish his job," Wadsworth said. "He didn't leave any unfinished business, not with his friends, not with his family, and not with the public. He lived his life well, and a lot of people aren't able to have that kind of departure."

Gov. Buddy MacKay, sworn in early Sunday, said Mrs. Chiles has been leading the planning for her husband's funeral and memorial services.

"She is really providing a lot of stability and leadership for everybody else," MacKay said. "She knows how she wants things done and (says) "We're going to do this with class, and this is going to be done properly.' She sees this not only as mourning, but as a celebration. There's a depth and dimension to Rhea Chiles that is really inspiring."

Rhea Chiles has never been a wallflower living in her husband's shadow. She is an accomplished artist and strong advocate for causes she believes in.

"I'm blessed to have my closest confidante, my best friend, my key political adviser, the love of my life, my wife and mother of my children. Rhea fills all these roles, and now she is also your first lady of Florida," Chiles said in his 1991 inaugural address.

Though Florida's first lady kept a low public profile in recent years, aides say she remained the key political adviser she has been throughout Chiles' career. She often sat in on and participated in policy meetings and strategy sessions.

"The governor's "inner voice' was fairly often an echo of her," said former communications director Ron Sachs

It was her idea, for instance, for him to walk across Florida in his first campaign for U.S. Senate. And during Gov. Chiles' rocky first term, it was Rhea Chiles who was credited with pushing Chiles to refocus on children's issues instead of more esoteric matters like government red tape.

When Chiles won his U.S. Senate seat in 1970, Rhea quickly spearheaded an effort to raise private donations to buy and renovate an old Victorian house near the capital. Today, visitors from the Sunshine State can still visit Florida House for orange juice, snacks and information.

"Other states have asked, "Why can't we do that?' And I'll tell you the reason they can't is because they don't have Rhea Chiles. She doesn't let up on anybody," said Lupe Burt, a longtime Florida House board member and mother of Republican state Sen. Locke Burt of Ormond Beach.

Last year, Mrs. Chiles created a book, 700 North Adams Street, on the Governor's Mansion. More recently, she threw her energy into renovating the home north of the Capitol where the family planned to settle. On Friday, the day before the governor's death, the Chiles family faxed out their new address and phone numbers to some of their closest friends.

Her friends say they expect Mrs. Chiles to remain at the new house after she moves out of the Governor's Mansion within the next few weeks. Lawton Chiles had been talking to the White House about a job as roving ambassador for the Clinton administration, but Mrs. Chiles planned to remain in Tallahassee and periodically join her husband on his travels, friends said.

One worry Mrs. Chiles should not have is money. Chiles' 1997 financial statement showed a net worth in the millions.

"Rhea Chiles is not a person who's going to want to sit on a porch and knit. That's not her style," said family friend William Lindner. "I think you'll see her still do great things. She still has a lot of contributions she'll want to make."
-- Staff writers Mary Evertz, David Karp and Tim Nickens contributed to this report.


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