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Florida salutes Chiles on his final walk


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 1998

TALLAHASSEE -- Lawton Chiles closed the gap between powerful politicians and ordinary Floridians one last time Wednesday.

Lawton Chiles

Florida salutes Chiles on his final walk

Mourning with joy for a life well-lived
[Lucy Morgan]

Mansion opens its doors, heart for one last goodbye

Overflow crowd bids farewell to man they admired

Continue Chiles' work for children [Editorial]

Vice President Al Gore and other political leaders joined hundreds of residents from throughout the state at the funeral for the governor and former U.S. senator who moved easily between the halls of government and the backroads of Florida.

The two-hour service at the red-brick Faith Presbyterian Church celebrated the various sides of Chiles, from his determination to help children and fight tobacco to his love of pranks and the outdoors. The tributes by his former colleagues, friends and family members inspired a mix of laughter, applause and tears.

"Thank you, Lawton, for restoring our trust in each other," said Buddy MacKay, his friend and colleague who is serving out the rest of Chiles' term. "The journey isn't over. The legacy is there, the legacy is there in each of us.

"And if you disappointed us at all," MacKay said as his voice cracked, "it was only that you left us too early."

Chiles, 68, died Saturday of an abnormal heart rhythm as he was exercising at the Governor's Mansion. He had just 23 days left in his second four-year term and had planned to join the Clinton administration as a special envoy to Latin America.

More than 850 mourners jammed into the sanctuary, including friends and politicians spanning decades in national and state government. About 400 watched on television in the adjacent fellowship hall, and several hundred more watched the services on a video screen outside the church.

Besides the vice president, the crowd included Attorney General Janet Reno, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. There also were members of Congress from inside and outside Florida, and several governors of other states.

Five of the six living former Florida governors attended the services; former Gov. Bob Martinez was out of the country. Also in the crowd were current and former state Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members and dozens of current and former legislators.

Then there were Floridians like John Anthony, who left Chiles' hometown of Lakeland at 3 a.m. and waited in line at the church for several hours.

"I couldn't have existed with my conscience if I didn't come," said Anthony, who recalled being one of Chiles' first law clients in the mid-1950s.

What they all heard were sentimental stories from all phases of Chiles' political career, which began when Eisenhower was president and included a dozen years in the Legislature, 18 years in the U.S. Senate and nearly eight years as governor.

Longtime friend Mallory Horne recalled the controversial issues they faced together as legislators in the 1960s, including open government, race, women's rights and reapportionment.

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham called Chiles the "Paul Revere of fiscal discipline" for sounding the alarm as a senator in the 1980s about the federal budget deficit. He said those battles eventually led to this year's balanced budget.

"Future generations who never knew Lawton Chiles will thank him for these and many other victories," Graham said. "Lawton Chiles can never be replaced, but he will forever be remembered."

Senate President Toni Jennings, an Orlando Republican, talked of the changing political scene Chiles coped with as a Democrat. First the Senate and then the House fell under Republican control while he was governor, but Jennings said he worked well with Republicans on issues ranging from workers' compensation to welfare reform.

She also recalled Chiles' children's initiatives, which helped reduce the infant mortality rate and provide thousands of youngsters with health insurance, and his fight against tobacco that led to a $13.1-billion settlement with the industry.

"The trip down Tobacco Road will never be forgotten," Jennings said. "The man was absolutely tireless in his pursuit."

But the more personal stories captured Chiles' nature in a way his political accomplishments could not.

MacKay recalled the way the governor would mangle names and words. When Chiles talked about abortion, parental consent became "perennial consent."

"Once he got a word in his head wrong," MacKay said, "he never got it straightened out."

Gore remembered Chiles' down-home Cracker sayings, from "a cut dog barks" to "even a blind hog will root out an acorn every once in a while."

"He knew ones I never ever heard from anyone else," the vice president said.

There were endearing stories about Chiles' 1,033-mile walk from the Florida Panhandle to the Keys in 1970 that won him a U.S. Senate seat and the nickname "Walkin' Lawton."

Former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a longtime friend, said his opponent tried to do the same thing in that state two years later.

"What he didn't realize was that Lawton left the walk to do television a lot of times during the week," Nunn said. "My opponent got in those south Georgia pines and was never heard from again."

He and others also spoke of Chiles' spiritual life, from Bible discussions with small groups of friends during his Senate days to more recent lessons he led at the Governor's Mansion.

"All of us who know Lawton," Nunn said, "know he is walking today with the Lord."

Mixed among the memories offered by Chiles' friends and colleagues were tributes from his children and grandchildren.

Five of his 10 grandchildren sang a high-pitched version of Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World. Strumming a guitar, Lawton Chiles IV sang a song he wrote in tribute of his grandfather called Walkin' Man.

Each of Chiles' four adult children spoke of their love for their father and his devotion to his family and his state. Bud Chiles read a letter he wrote in his father's voice.

"To those of you who loved him and were touched by him," Ed Chiles said, "know that his spirit is alive in each of you."

Following the service, the plain pine coffin covered by an American flag was driven to Roselawn Cemetery about 3 miles north of the Capitol. During a 20-minute ceremony, seven riflemen fired a three-volley salute. Four F-15 jets flew over in the missing man formation.

Chiles was buried beneath a moss-covered live oak tree with his favorite turkey callers, which he used to rouse turkeys when he hunted in the woods north of Tallahassee.

His favorite one, made from walnut and poplar by a friend in North Carolina, was a small rectangle with a paddle that would make a yelp like a short wild turkey. The others were metal mouthpieces that would make a turkey sound.

They reflected yet another side of the man friends called a Florida Original.

"Lawton," Graham said at the church service, "thank you for letting us join your adventure of life. It's been a wonderful walk."
-- Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.


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