In 1970, Lawton Chiles decided to run for U.S. Senate. He’d served as an artillery officer in Korea, became a lawyer and businessman, and served a combined twelve years in the Florida House and Florida Senate–but he was from sleepy, rural Polk county and not many people across the state had ever heard of him. He wasn’t wealthy, and he didn’t want to sell out to the interests of wealthy donors. What was a regular guy to do?
His wife Rhea first thought of the idea: a walk across Florida to shake hands with the people he wanted to reach. And so they mapped out his route, and off he went. He started out in Century, a small town in the tip of the Florida Panhandle along the Alabama border, and walked a total of 1,003 miles for 91 days, all the way to Key Largo–earning him the title of “Walkin’ Lawton.” He shook hands with nearly 40,000 Floridians, won the election, and went on to serve 18 years as a U.S. Senator, then later returned from retirement to serve as Governor of Florida. He passed away from a heart attack just 23 days before the end of his second term.
I loved Lawton Chiles. Everybody did. Even if you disagreed with a position he took, you knew that he was as honest as they come, and that he cared about people–especially children–above everything else. And you’d be hard pressed to find another politician of such integrity throughout his career. It’s well worth a visit to the Capitol Museum in Tallahassee to see his walking boots as a reminder of this.
Lawton Chiles wrote a journal during his walk in 1970. In the earlier part of his walk, after passing east of Pensacola in the Panhandle, he wrote this about his boots and his journey:
I was walking today in some service boots that I haven’t worn since I was in Korea. I started thinking back and remembering that it was during the “cease-fire” and we had a Colonel that wanted to keep the troops occupied so that they wouldn’t get bored so he had us go on forced marches. I used to lead the column on a 20 mile forced march wearing these boots. At that time I was a first lieutenant and could step out ahead of the column and slip back to the back and pick up stragglers and see how they were getting along and dog-trot back up to the head of the column and march at a clip that would make 20 miles in a day. I was kinda wondering what was wrong with these boots today ’cause I wasn’t making quite that kind of time. Maybe it’s the 18 years in between and not the boots. Lt. Chiles was still at the head of the column today, but he was having a lot of trouble with Sen. Chiles who was a straggler. Sen. Chiles kept looking for a corpsman, and I think he was looking for a stretcher to ride on.
Fortunately “Lt. Chiles” appeared to have led the column the remaining 900+ miles, and he kept pace the rest of his lifetime.
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