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Mansion opens its doors,
heart for one last goodbye


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 1998

TALLAHASSEE -- Two weeks ago, Lawton and Rhea Chiles opened the Governor's Mansion for an evening, allowing anyone and everyone to visit.

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]

The governor sat in the living room, signing autographs and laughing as well-wishers thanked him for his 40 years of service. His official portrait had just been unveiled at the Capitol, and he had grown weepy as speakers praised him and the Tallahassee Boys Choir sang Amazing Grace.

Wednesday night, the public came to the mansion again.

Hundreds of them lined up to offer condolences to the families of Chiles and Gov. Buddy MacKay. Some came in wheelchairs and walkers.

There were dozens of children of all races.

"'He had such a sensitivity to mothers and babies," said Canary Girardeau of Jacksonville, who drove to Tallahassee to pay Chiles tribute.

After a day of grieving and remembrance, the mood at the mansion was lighter.

Sitting in a chair on the back porch, Rhea Chiles welcomed old friends and strangers. She hugged them, asked about their families and listened to story after story about how Chiles had touched the lives of ordinary people.

"We've come full circle," she told one well-wisher.

Outside, at the mansion entrance, they showed a video of some of the governor's famous goofy moments: Chiles wearing a hippie wig, a cowboy hat, a turban, a coonskin cap, a fur vest.

He was caught on camera firing a potato gun at the mansion, dancing wildly, playing practical jokes and waving at the crowds as he and MacKay walked during the 1994 campaign.

On the back patio, Buddy and Anne MacKay shook hundreds of hands, thanking people who helped put the administration's ideas into action.

MacKay talked from the heart, with tears in his eyes.

Old friends showed up, like Amory Underhill, 88, who has known Chiles since the governor graduated from high school in Lakeland.

"Even then, you could tell he was going somewhere," said Underhill, who worked with Rhea Chiles on the Florida House, a hospitality center in Washington, D.C. "'He had the instinct of being kind to people."

It was a long wait in line, but Underhill said he was glad to do it.

"'I flew up from Orlando this morning," Underhill said. "I've been around a long time, and I can tell you: There will never be another one like Lawton Chiles."

For the families of Chiles and MacKay, it had been a long, emotional day.

After several hours, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Agents stopped the line of mourners, saying the families needed, at last, some private time to grieve.


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