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Hundreds line roads for Chiles

Walkin' with Lawton: Marie McMurray, 72, of
Century said, "This is where he started it all. And this i
s where he is ending it."
[Times photo: Jonathan Newton]

Along the path of Chiles' 1970 walk, many wave signs and flags or simply salute as he makes his final trip.

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 1998

CENTURY -- On a crisp, sun-splashed day in North Florida, Lawton Chiles' final journey followed his legendary footprints through small towns and pine forests as thousands lined the two-lane blacktop to say goodbye.

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The governor's funeral cortege from this small crossroads on the Alabama border back to Tallahassee covered more than 200 miles and five hours on Tuesday. It retraced the path of his 1970 walk across the state, a 1,033-mile trek that helped him win a U.S. Senate seat and a special place in Florida history.

The flood of memories the procession triggered among those who came to silently pay their respects spanned decades.

"He was so personable, so easy to talk with," said Patty Stone of Century, an old "I'm walking with Lawton Chiles" button pinned to her coat. "There really are not many like him."

Chiles, 68, died Saturday of an abnormal heart rhythm while exercising at the Governor's Mansion. He was 23 days away from completing his second four-year term as governor.

The governor's body will continue to lie in state this morning in the Old Capitol, where more than 5,000 mourners passed by the plain pine casket Tuesday night. The funeral, which will be broadcast live on statewide television, will be at 1 p.m. today at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee.

Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham will be among the speakers to an overflow audience that will include Attorney General Janet Reno, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and dozens of Florida elected officials.

Tuesday was for regular folks.

It began as the sun rose behind the tiny brick post office in Century, population 2,000. This is where Chiles began his 1970 walk as an obscure state senator, and residents remember it as if it were yesterday.

"We just walked a little bit with him on that first walk," recalled 75-year-old Ruth Godwin as she joined a cluster of residents in the post office parking lot, "because a friend who went with me had high heels on."

Marie McMurray, 72, shared an autographed picture of her and Chiles taken after his walk through Century. "He was like a teenager with a girlfriend," she said of her attraction to him. "You mention his name, and it does something to you."

The 12-car procession pulled onto State Road 4 a short time later, the black Lincoln hearse fifth in line and followed by a sedan carrying Chiles' two adult sons, Bud and Ed.

Up the winding, tree-lined Jay hill.

"The word was that if I could make it up the Jay hill," Chiles wrote in a diary of his walk, "the trip would be coasting the rest of the way to the Keys."

Many onlookers placed their right hand or their caps over their heart as the motorcade passed.

Just outside the pine trees of Blackwater River State Forest, a solitary man watched from the roadside with a large American flag propped against his pickup. It would be the first of many flags along the way, from the miniatures held by schoolchildren to the larger ones held by well-wishers in parking lots.

Then there were the hand-written signs.

Some referred to Chiles' widely acclaimed advocacy for children, which helped reduce the infant mortality rate and provide health care for thousands of youngsters.

"Now you walk beside God," read one sign held by a woman in Munson. "Your memory will live through our children."

Children's colorful handprints filled in the corners.

In Baker, a sign referring to the nickname Chiles picked up after declaring in a 1994 debate with Republican Jeb Bush that "the old he-coon walks just before the light of day": "Goodbye He-Coon. Thanks for everything."

A short time later, the procession turned east onto U.S. 90. In Crestview, the local Chevy dealer turned on the headlights of the new pickups in Chiles' honor.

"He loved the schoolkids, and they loved him," said Diane Wilkinson, remembering a school trip to the Capitol as she stood with several hundred onlookers outside the Okaloosa County Courthouse. "They saw the walking shoes he wore with the holes in them, and that really impressed them."

Chiles remarked about his love for small North Florida towns in one of his final interviews last week.

"I like the way they talk," he said. "I like the things they talk about."

The procession drew people from all walks of life. Black and white. Young and old. Car salesmen in ties and men in jeans and hunting caps.

In Cottondale, Charles F. Bailey chewed tobacco as he stood with several other men along the roadside.

"He was a great person," said Bailey, 65. "He will be hard to replace."

Wade Skipper recalled being on a school bus as a teenager when Chiles walked up. The bus pulled over, the children stuck their arms out the windows and Chiles shook their hands.

"He asked us to please have our mommies and daddies vote for him. . . . I always remembered that," Skipper said.

The motorcade arrived at the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee about 2 p.m., picked up first lady Rhea Chiles and proceeded several blocks to the Capitol.

Eight National Guardsmen carried the casket, draped in an American flag, up 50 steps at the Old Capitol. The governor's closest aides wept and held their hands over their hearts as the hearse drove up. Five members of the state Cabinet stood in the cold wind.

Inside, Rhea Chiles set a white rose on her husband's casket and laid her hand on it briefly. Her son, Bud, put his arm around her.

On a side table next to the casket, there was Chiles' old family Bible. A copy of the Congressional Record from Jan. 21, 1971 -- Chiles first day in the Senate, also was there. Nearby were Chiles' famous walking shoes and his official portrait.

Gov.-elect Bush filed past about 6 p.m. looking somber.

"I'm saddened," Bush told reporters. "I'm praying for his family. This is a tough time."

The four Chiles children said a short time later that they were overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection for their father. Tandy Barrett, 46; Bud, 45; Ed, 43; and Rhea, 32, sat together on a couch in the governor's office and reflected about the day.

"We were staggered by the response, by being able to look in those people's eyes today and see the love and the respect and the sadness," Ed Chiles said of the trip across the Panhandle. "That's the legacy of a great man. People feel connected to him."
-- Staff writers Julie Hauserman, Diane Rado and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.


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