Former First Lady Rhea Chiles remembered for ideas

Posted at 10:29 PM, Nov 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-17 07:00:46-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Former Florida First Lady Rhea Chiles, who was buried Monday beside her late husband, was remembered by mourners as the source of Gov. Lawton Chiles' best ideas.

Among them was the notion of Lawton Chiles, then a Democratic state senator from Lakeland, walking from Pensacola to Key West in his first bid for statewide office --- for the U.S. Senate in 1970.

"The motivation for the walk was that Rhea became insistent that they not go back to their old friends and ask for more money to finance his campaign," former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding said in a eulogy at Tallahassee's Faith Presbyterian Church.

So she proposed limiting Chiles' campaign contributions to $100 apiece.

"And we all know that idea was successful," Harding said. "And we all know that 'Walkin' Lawton' was elected senator, and the Chileses moved to Washington, where he served three terms."

Rhea Chiles died Nov. 8, at age 84, surrounded by family at her home on Anna Maria Island in Manatee County. She is survived by her four children --- Tandy Chiles, Lawton “Bud” Chiles III, Ed Chiles, and Rhea Gay Chiles.

One of the Chiles' grandchildren, Katie Ottenweller, said Rhea Chiles had "this killer intuition about ideas."

"She believed in the contagious power of ideas to really galvanize people, to bring them together," Ottenweller said. "An idea like walking the state of Florida could inspire the entire state. An idea like limiting people's campaign contributions could restore people's faith in the democratic process."

Another of Rhea Chiles' ideas, mourners said, was the couple's focus on helping children during Lawton Chiles' nearly eight years as governor. He led the state from January 1991 until Dec. 12, 1998, when he died of a heart attack weeks before the end of his second term.

Harding said Rhea Chiles sparked a number of programs to benefit children, including Healthy Start, which serves pregnant women and newborns. He also credited her with the idea of using the money from a settlement with tobacco companies, in part, to pay for a successful campaign to curb youth smoking.

In fact, Harding recalled, Lawton Chiles moved his staff meetings from the Capitol to the Governor's Mansion so Rhea Chiles could participate.

"And it was through that effort that her influence was acknowledged in decisions that were made --- not only by the governor, not only by the staff, but also by the Legislature," he said.

Rhea Chiles' grandchildren played leading roles in Monday's service, recalling her with affection and humor.

"A true Renaissance woman," said granddaughter Tandy Bondi. "She was my hero."

However, Bondi said, Rhea Chiles "was not a typical lovey-dovey grandmother. … She was blunt and she was honest."

Ottenweller said her grandmother was "really a whiz at computers" but kept the caps lock on her keyboard at all times. "So you would get these emails that were really dramatic and intense, no matter what she was emailing about."

The memorial service drew many people who served in the Chiles administration, including former Gov. Buddy MacKay, who was Chiles' lieutenant governor and served as the state's chief executive for a brief period after the December 1998 death.

"She was a brilliant woman," MacKay said of Rhea Chiles. "She had a great sense of timing, a great understanding of where priorities should be."

"She cared so much about the children of this state, and she did so much to help them," said Tallahassee attorney Steve Uhlfelder, a member of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet. "She was a real visionary."