By DIANE RADO
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 1998
ALLAHASSEE -- They will miss his smile and his old Florida drawl, the sparkle in his eyes and the extraordinary way he touched their lives.
There is a Western Union telegram from evangelist Billy Graham: "I am shocked and saddened to hear of the death of my longtime friend Lawton Chiles. He was a great senator, governor, and friend."
Letters of sympathy came from the consul generals of Argentina and Spain, the Consulate General of Italy and the consul to Mali, in Africa.
But the e-mail and letters from ordinary citizens showed more than anything how deeply Chiles connected to the people he served for more than 40 years in public life.
The governor's correspondence office had received nearly 900 letters, e-mails and phone calls by early Tuesday -- and that doesn't include correspondence or calls to other offices of the governor. The Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies at University of South Florida College of Public Health has been getting calls as well. Gov. Buddy MacKay has said thousands of people have called or written.
Residents, former residents, seasonal residents, even relatives of residents have sent their condolences.
"Although I have been an "absent son' for more than 30 years, I have never felt far from my Central Florida roots," wrote Ed Pyle of Toluca Lake, Calif. He was a radio reporter in Lakeland when he met a refreshing and candid Chiles, then serving in the Florida Legislature.
"I treasure the memory of the clasp of his hand, the sparkle in his eye, the sincerity of his smile and the sheer decency of the man he was," Pyle wrote.
Others recalled the impact Chiles had on their lives.
Phillip Scheuerman of Johnson City, Tenn., said he was a struggling student in Florida in the early 1970s and was having trouble getting a student loan from local banks. His mother wrote to then U.S. Sen. Chiles, who called a bank on his behalf. "I will never forget this because this loan made it possible for me to pay for my education," Scheuerman wrote.
Maury Schiowitz of West Palm Beach said he saw Chiles after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and Chiles talked to him about depression -- the governor at one time took the anti-depressant Prozac. Schiowitz was inspired to start an organization for people with depression, manic- depression and other disorders.
Several writers said Chiles' death brought back memories of the death of their parents or other close relatives. Others said they will treasure their memories of being with Chiles -- even for a short period of time.
Maria Kart, a media specialist at a Tampa middle school, said she once chaperoned some Citrus County students on a trip to the Capitol. "The students were able to sit around him on the steps to the Capitol, all within 10 feet of him. It was a memorable experience for them to be so up close and personal with the governor. He was friendly and approachable. He will be sorely missed."
The letters made it clear that you didn't have to be a Democrat to hold Chiles in high esteem.
"As a member of the Republican Party, I often found myself at odds with some of the stands which Gov. Chiles took," wrote Gary Kelley of St. Petersburg. "However, he will always be remembered as a great and noble man."
Many writers struggled with profound sadness and questions about how Florida will cope without Chiles.
"When my 9-year-old daughter heard of Gov. Chiles' death, she cried and said, "How will we get along without him?' " wrote Beverly Bell, who did not list where she lived. "That certainly mirrors the way I feel."
Patricia Stumbaugh of North Fort Myers said she will tell her grandchildren to look at the sky to remember Chiles, whom she described as the "huggable" governor.
"When they see a shooting start whiz by, it's "Walkin' Lawton' sending a hug to all the children in Florida."