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Rhea Chiles' faith, grace and compassion remembered at funeral

History, politics, family and faith met as one Monday in a joyous celebration of a life well-lived at the funeral service for Rhea Grafton Chiles, a former First Lady of Florida.

Mrs. Chiles died Nov. 8 at age 84 at her home on Anna Maria Island. She was the wife of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, who served from 1991 until Dec. 12, 1998, when he died of a heart attack three weeks before his term was due to end. Former Gov. Buddy MacKay, the lieutenant governor who completed Chiles' term, was among the dozens of former state officials on hand.

"She was a brilliant woman. She had a great sense of timing and a great understanding of where our priorities should be," said MacKay, 80, who lives with his wife, Anne, in the mountains of North Carolina.  MacKay noted that it was Rhea Chiles' brainstorm that her husband, as a longshot Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in 1970, should accept no campaign contribution greater than $100 and walk the length of the state to introduce himself to voters.

It was an act of desperation at the time by an obscure state senator, but it proved to be spectacularly successful and a legend was born. Chiles served three terms as a senator and two as governor, and Rhea Chiles was instrumental in his support for children's programs and a campaign to reduce teenage smoking in the 1990s.

The service had an uplifting spirit. Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding delivered the eulogy and noted Mrs. Chiles' strong religious faith, a passion for painting and a vision that became "Florida House," the only so-called state embassy in Washington, D.C. Harding, the first judge Gov. Chiles appointed, recalled the "courage and grace" Mrs, Chiles demonstrated after her husband's death two weeks before Christmas in 1998.

Four grandchildren entertained the congregation with stories about their "Ma-ma-ma," as she was known. "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."

At the service, old friends reached across the church pews and across decades as they renewed acquaintances with hugs and shared memories. Former Sen. Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven said he saw some people Monday for the first time since Lawton Chiles' funeral 17 years ago.

Gov. Rick Scott attended the service at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. Other guests included former Attorney General Bob Butterworth; former Chiles advisers Jim Towey, Tom Herndon, Bob Bradley, Jack Peeples, Todd Wilder, Ron Sachs and Dave Mica; former state university system chancellor Charlie Reed; and former Senate presidents John Vogt and John McKay.