Rhea Chiles, 84, the wife of former Gov. Lawton Chiles who was an influential force in her husband’s policy initiatives as governor and U.S. senator and an accomplished artist, died Sunday at her home on Anna Maria Island. She had been attended by hospice.
“Today is a profoundly sad but also joyous day as we gather as a family to both celebrate and mourn the life and death of our mom, Rhea Chiles,” wrote her son, Lawton “Bud” Chiles, in a statement.
“She passed today at 3:15 pm surrounded by many members of the family. While she has faced health challenges over the last several years, up until the past three to four months she continued to do the things she loved best — enjoying family and friends, painting and encouraging others.
“She embraced life fully, right up until the end. Now she will join our dad in God’s protective embrace, and for that, we are grateful and joyous.”
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Chiles leaves behind four children — Tandy, Bud, Ed and Rhea — ten grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Bud Chiles noted that his parents were “equal partners in the wonderful legacy they leave behind. From the first campaign in 1958 for the state Legislature where they knocked on doors to win an election to the Walking Lawton Campaign for U.S. Senate and all the way to the governor’s mansion.”
Lawton Chiles’ 40-year career in public service began in in the state Legislature, where he served until 1969. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from 1979 to 1989 and served as governor from 1991 to 1998.
Among Rhea Chiles’ most significant contributions was her vision with her husband of focusing on youth smoking cessation as part of the tobacco settlement her husband won with the tobacco industry in 1996. They worked to create the platform for Students Working Against Tobacco, or SWAT, which was funded by the settlement dollars and led to the statewide student-led Truth (anti-tobacco campaign). The Truth campaign resulted in a dramatic cessation of tobacco use among middle and high school students and became a national model.
After Chiles’ sudden death in 1998, a month before he was to end his term, Rhea Chiles founded The Lawton Chiles Foundation to focus on child health initiatives.
During their years in Washington, Rhea Chiles founded the Florida House in 1972, restoring an 1883 town house located behind the U.S. Supreme Court into a welcome embassy that provides hospitality and information to Floridians visiting the nation’s capital. She served as president and CEO of the Florida House Board of Trustees from 1973 to 1988.
In the 1960s, Rhea Chiles was a founder of the Polk County Museum of Art, Lakeland, Florida, and during their time in Washington, she presided over the Congressional Wives Prayer Group and co-chaired the Ladies of the Senate Luncheon for First Lady Betty Ford.
She spent her retirement years on Anna Maria Island, where she developed and managed The Studio at Gulf and Pine, a community cultural center.