BRADENTON -- Champion for children and families.
Supporter of the less fortunate.
Servant to the people.
Rhea Chiles embodies those qualities and more to the admirers who filled the Bradenton Auditorium on Thursday night. Nearly 500 people were on hand to recognize Florida's former first lady, the recipient of the fifth annual Edgar H. Price Jr., Lifetime Achievement Award, sponsored by the Manatee County Rural Health Services Foundation.
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"It's a tribute, an honor," said the Holmes Beach resident, beloved matriarch and admired torchbearer of her family's legacy. "You always feel you don't deserve it, but I'm sure going to take it. I might not get another one!"
The award, named after the former state senator, sa
lutes a person who made a difference through leadership, community involvement and philanthropy.
Chiles partnered with husband, Lawton, during his 40 years in public service, spanning the Florida Legislature, U.S. Senate and governor's office.
She is founder and chair of the Lawton Chiles Foundation, which carries on his commitment to benefit the lives of children in Florida.
"This award means a lot to our family," son Bud Chiles said. "We're honored she's getting it. Children's health was such an important issue for my father."
Manatee County Rural Health Services, Rhea Chiles said, is a "concrete example" of her husband's public policy.
"You can't just send money down from Washington," the honoree said. "You've got to get it into the community, form coalitions, get people working together and that's what they've done here. I'm just delighted to do whatever I can."
Her public spirit was much appreciated Thursday night.
"She's been a champion for children and families throughout the state," said Walter "Mickey" Presha, MCRHS president and chief executive officer. "A champion for people who are disenfranchised, particularly in health care, education, you name it."
"This is a perfect person to honor," said County Commissioner Carol Whitmore. "Rhea deserves every bit of this."
Moody Johnson agreed.
"She and her late husband are servants rather than people who want to be served," said the Palmetto community leader. "I really admire that about the Chiles family. I really do."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix.