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Walkin’ Lawton Chiles

Published: 12/12/2013
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Florida governor-elect Lawton Chiles in 1994 after defeating Jeb Bush (AP Photo / Peter Cosgrove)

Fifteen years ago today, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles was working out on an exercise bike in the governor's mansion when he had a sudden heart attack and died. After serving two terms as governor, the popular Democrat had only three weeks left in office and had recently visited the White House to talk about working with President Clinton. Word quickly reached Washington, where the House Judiciary Committee, in the midst of impeachment proceedings against Clinton, observed a moment of silence in Chiles' honor.

Chiles was known as "Walkin’ Lawton" for walking the length of the state –– 1,003 miles from Pensacola to Key West –– over 91 days in his successful 1970 campaign for the United States Senate.

Senatorial candidate Lawton Chiles in 1970 (AP Photo / Donn Dughi)At left: Senatorial candidate Lawton Chiles, right answers questions while walking along a street in Tallahassee, Fla., in this 1970 photo. (AP Photo/Donn Dughi)

Chiles was a fourth generation Floridian whose father, railroad conductor Lawton Mainor Chiles, regularly took his young son to political rallies, according to the Great Floridian Film Series. He attended the University of Florida, where he was active in campus politics and a member of the ATO fraternity. He married his wife, Rhea, in 1951, and the couple went on to have four children. After serving in the Korean War, Chiles returned to the university to complete his law degree in 1955. In 1958, at age 28, he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives.

Chiles served in the state senate from 1966 to 1970, when he walked his way into the U.S. Senate. He was re-elected twice to the Senate, retiring in 1989. He was persuaded to enter the 1990 Florida governor’s race, defeating Republican incumbent Bob Martinez. In 1994 he won a second term against challenger Jeb Bush.

Chiles was an avid outdoorsman –– a turkey hunter and fisherman. He was also a shrewd businessman. A 1994 story in the Orlando Sentinel reported that Chiles was an early investor in the Red Lobster restaurants and owned rental properties in Lakeland as well as six houses –– ranging from a log cabin on 200 acres of hunting preserve to a townhouse in Tallahassee –– for personal use. Chiles is quoted as saying, ''You know, Rhea has said that if I enjoyed making money as much as I enjoyed politics I could've owned the Empire State Building.''

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, with his famous "Walkin Lawton" boots (AP Photo / Mark Foley)At left: Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, with his famous "Walkin Lawton" boots (AP Photo/Mark Foley)

In his 40 years in public life, Chiles was a staunch advocate for health care, particularly for children and the elderly, and for the environment. One of his greatest legacies was the lawsuit he filed with Attorney General Bob Butterworth against the tobacco industry, resulting in an $11 billion settlement in 1997.

Chiles was diagnosed with hypertension in 1980 and five years later had quadruple heart bypass surgery. He had what seemed to be a minor stroke in 1995 and began walking several miles a day as part of his recovery regime. When Chiles died, the chef of the governor's mansion and other staffers walked alongside the black van that took his body away. His funeral procession began in Century, Fla. where his walk had started 28 years earlier. His flag-draped coffin, according to the SunSentinel,"was flanked by Chiles' official portrait, his original walking shoes, a family Bible and his first copy of the Congressional Record, dated Jan. 21, 1971." Chiles is buried on the family estate in Lakeland.
 

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.
 

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