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  1. Florida Politics

Former Florida first lady Rhea Chiles remembered for grace, compassion

Rhea Chiles, the widow of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, died last week at age 84. She was instrumental in her husband’s advocacy of children’s health, especially to reduce smoking.
Rhea Chiles, the widow of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, died last week at age 84. She was instrumental in her husband’s advocacy of children’s health, especially to reduce smoking.
Published Nov. 17, 2015

History, family and faith converged Monday as Florida warmly said goodbye to Rhea Chiles.

The widow of former Gov. Lawton Chiles died last week at age 84. She was first lady during the 1990s, the "inner voice" Chiles said he heard giving him sage advice.

Mrs. Chiles was many things: child advocate, painter of Florida's natural beauty, restorer of old homes and lover of board games who hated to lose.

She hated to lose elections, too. That's why she's central to one of the enduring legends of Florida history.

Rhea Grafton met Lawton Chiles at the University of Florida in 1948, and their political journey began a decade later when he ran for a House seat against a popular incumbent in Lakeland.

They walked the district door to door and won. As family friend John McKay, the former Senate president and Polk County native, remembers: "Rhea took one side of the street and Lawton took the other."

A dozen years later, when Chiles made his long shot bid for U.S. Senate, his wife urged him to limit campaign donations to $100 and walk from the Panhandle to the Keys — a "shoestring" campaign if ever there was one.

It was a resounding triumph over big money that likely will never be seen again in Florida. Chiles spent 18 years in the Senate and came home to be governor, the last Democrat to hold the post.

Rhea Chiles was instrumental in her husband's advocacy of children's health, especially to reduce smoking, and staff meetings were moved to the Governor's Mansion for her input.

"She had a great sense of timing and a great understanding of where our priorities should be," former Gov. Buddy MacKay told reporters outside Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. MacKay was Chiles' lieutenant governor, called to complete his term after Chiles died on Dec. 12, 1998.

At the service, two grandchildren played guitar and four others fondly remembered their "Ma-ma-ma."

"Rhea was not the typical lovey-dovey grandmother," granddaughter Katie Chiles Ottenweller said. "She was blunt and brutally honest."

She said she has modeled her own life after Mrs. Chiles, who told her to "trust your instincts and step out on faith."

Former Supreme Court Justice Major Harding, who gave the eulogy, recalled the "courage and grace" Mrs. Chiles showed after her husband's sudden death.

Gov. Rick Scott attended, surrounded by Democrats of a previous generation who reached across the pews, and decades, with hugs and shared memories.

It's because of Rhea Chiles that the only state embassy among the 50 states, "Florida House," welcomes Sunshine State visitors to D.C. It was her idea to make the zebra longwing the official state butterfly.

Jim Towey, who lost his job as Chiles' human services secretary in a bitter 1995 clash with state senators, remembered going to the mansion afterward and finding Mrs. Chiles there.

"She said, 'Well, that was interesting. What are you going to do now?' " recalled a smiling Towey, president of Ave Maria University near Naples. "Always looking straight ahead."

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.