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Center that was to be
Chiles' base mourns him


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 1998

TAMPA -- Upon leaving the Governor's Mansion in January, Lawton Chiles was expected to make another home here, in an academic center named in his honor.

But instead of welcoming him, the leaders of the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies met Monday to mourn the governor's passing.

Lawton Chiles
Under an atrium on campus, University of South Florida President Betty Castor and the center's staff gathered to say how much Florida's governor had done for children. They also made a subtle pitch, as television cameras rolled, for contributions.

Chiles' family asked that people give to the center, founded in 1996, rather than send flowers for his funeral.

"What we are doing here is exactly what the governor would want to be remembered for," Castor said at the news conference. "I'm sure he is looking down on this really happy."

Chiles hoped to use the center as a bully pulpit, much as former President Jimmy Carter uses the Carter Center in Atlanta to promote world peace, said director Charles Mahan.

Rhea Chiles will stay involved in the center, and her daughter, also named Rhea Chiles, works part-time there. But the center will miss the governor's charm, Mahan said.

"He lights up a room," he said.

Social workers who met Chiles at the center in June remembered how he touched them. He had lunch with three workers who help pregnant women through labor in a program operated through the center.

"They were real excited," said Lo Berry, project director of the federal Healthy Start program, which works with the center. "Because here was the governor, and not only did he talk to them but he hugged them, too."

After Chiles left, one of the social workers turned to Berry and said, "You know, he's a real person."

Advocates say Chiles was not only genuine about the cause but passionate about it.

"Because of Lawton, children and mothers are healthier today," Castor said. Infant mortality dropped 26 percent while he was governor, she said.

This month at a luncheon, supporters of the center filled out hundreds of cards to send to the governor.

One person wrote, "I truly pray the powers that be will follow in your footsteps."

The card was still at the Chiles Center on Monday, waiting to be mailed.


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