Lawton Chiles Biographer Presenting at FSC's Center for Florida History

John Coggin's biography of Fla. governor was recently released.


Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 8:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 8:41 p.m.

John Dos Passos Coggin got his introduction to the story of former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles in 2004, when he came to Florida to work on the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

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JOHN COGGIN, posing with a portrait of Lawton Chiles, wrote "Walkin' Lawton." (PROVIDED TO THE LEDGER)

Facts

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Lecture by John Dos Passos Coggin, author of "Walkin' Lawton."
LOCATION: Hollis Room, Florida Southern College, Lakeland.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday.
COST: Free.
CONTACT: 863-680-3001, www.flsouthern.edu/flhistory.

Coggin, a Maryland resident, became intrigued with Chiles' legacy and in particular his 1,003-mile trek on foot from Key West to Pensacola during his successful 1970 Senate campaign. That populist gesture earned Chiles the nickname "Walkin' Lawton," which Coggin uses as the title for a newly published biography (Florida Historical Society Press, $24.95) of the Lakeland native.

The author will discuss the book today in Lakeland in a lecture presented — appropriately enough — by Florida Southern College's Lawton M. Chiles, Jr., Center for Florida History.

Coggin, grandson of author John Dos Passos, said he was surprised to learn that no major scholarly works about the late Chiles existed. He said he contacted Chiles' family, including his widow, Rhea Chiles, and received permission in 2007 to write an authorized biography of the man who served in the Florida Legislature and the U.S. Senate and was twice elected Florida's governor.

Chiles died just before completing his second term in 1998.

Coggin, 29, interviewed major political figures, such as former governors Reuben Askew and Bob Graham. He said some of his most valuable material came from those who knew Chiles during his childhood in Lakeland.

He said the first subject he interviewed was the late Lakeland businessman Wilfred Wolfson.

"It was a remarkable experience to talk with someone who was actually Chiles' elder and have him recall what Lakeland was like in the '20s, in the '30s," Coggin said. "I don't think I could have really written the first chapter that details the old Lakeland without people like Willie Wolfson and Sarah McKay and others who could really paint that picture of the Lakeland that Chiles knew."

Coggin said another Lakelander, former Chiles staffer Robert Harris, provided valuable insights, as did Ed Chiles, one of the late governor's grown sons.

"Ed Chiles was just a terrific storyteller and really helped his dad's personality come alive for me," Coggin said. "I think he really had that sort of magnetism, that sort of dash about him, that his dad did by all accounts."

"Walkin' Lawton" is an authorized biography, Coggin said, and the Chiles family gave him free access to materials and didn't place restrictions on what he wrote.

While Chiles is recalled as a folksy populist, Coggin said he discovered the man devoted serious study to the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the writings of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright turned political leader.

"I think even Floridians who considered (Chiles) a friend will find more complexity in his character than perhaps they were exposed to," Coggin said. "I think a big part of that complexity is Chiles' intellectualism, the capacity he had to consume ideas, to consume books and to educate himself beyond Florida's borders."

James M. Denham, director of FSC's Center for Florida History, said it's fitting that an entity named for Chiles should host a lecture devoted to his legacy.

"John Coggin has written a readable and entertaining book on Lakeland native son Lawton Chiles," Denham said. "Drawn primarily from interviews of those who knew and loved him, it is filled with many interesting anecdotes of his life in state and national politics. It's a fine tribute to the man who had a major role in shaping the best aspects of the Florida we live in today."

[ Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. ]

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