Rhea Chiles Dies at 84

Rhea Chiles, First Lady of Florida during the governorship of her late husband Lawton Chiles, has died at the age of 84. Before, during, and after her term as First Lady, Chiles demonstrated a profound commitment to bettering the lives of Floridians through her educational and cultural pursuits.

Rhea and Lawton Chiles walking during Chiles' campaign for the governorship of Florida (1990).

Rhea and Lawton Chiles walking during Chiles’ campaign for the governorship of Florida (1990).

One of Chiles’ most unique contributions was the idea for Florida House, a sort of showcase for the Sunshine State located in downtown Washington, DC. In the late 1960s, while the Chiles family was visiting Washington, one of Rhea and Lawton’s young children asked if the family could visit Florida’s embassy. The parents explained that only nations had embassies, not states, but Rhea became intrigued by the idea of having a state “embassy” in Washington.

Rhea Chiles at home in Lakeland (1971).

Rhea Chiles at home in Lakeland (1971).

Lawton Chiles was elected U.S. Senator for Florida in 1970, which offered Rhea the opportunity to turn her vision into a reality. During the Chiles’ first year in Washington, Rhea discovered a building at 200 East Capitol Street that was badly in need of repair, but was well positioned to become the “embassy” she had in mind for Florida. She set to work raising funds from friends back home, along with $5,000 of her own money, and soon the old building was given a new lease on life as Florida House. The building was dedicated in 1973, and continues to serve as a center for exhibiting Florida’s history, culture, and achievements.

Florida House in Washington, DC (circa 1970s).

Florida House in Washington, DC (circa 1970s).

As First Lady, Rhea Chiles turned her attention mainly to the welfare of Florida’s children. She and Governor Chiles were instrumental in establishing the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies, now a component of the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. The Center focuses on maternal and child health research and education.

Mrs. Chiles also helped develop S.W.A.T. (Students Working Against Tobacco), a statewide network of youth-led anti-smoking organizations. The campaign is widely credited with reducing the number of teenage smokers in Florida, and has served as a model for similar programs around the United States.

Only months before Governor Lawton Chiles’ death in 1998, Rhea Chiles established a foundation in his memory, dedicating it to bettering the lives of Florida’s children by providing public awareness and support for children’s programs across the state. She also established a community cultural center called the Studio at Gulf and Pine, located on Anna Maria Island in Manatee County, where she resided at the time of her passing.