McGehee, 64, became CEO of the Raleigh-based electric utility in March 2004. The company's board plans to meet to discuss its executive succession plan.
In September, the board approved the plan in anticipation of McGehee's retirement, which was expected as early as next spring.
"Bob McGehee's life and his tenure as our company's CEO and chairman have been cut painfully short, but the list of his contributions to Progress Energy, its customers, employees and shareholders was long and outstanding," said interim board chairman John Mullin III in a written statement. "Bob was a rare person who combined vision and strength of character with a humble and generous spirit."
McGehee fell ill while traveling with other Progress Energy executives to meet with investors.
He underwent surgery at Charing Cross Hospital, a leading neurosurgery center. Progress Energy is one of the area's largest private employers, with about 3,000 workers in Wake County and 10,600 companywide.
Bill Johnson, 53, the company's chief operating officer and second in command, has taken on CEO duties. Johnson has worked for the utility since 1992 in a number of positions. He was formerly a utilities lawyer and partner at Hunton & Williams in Raleigh.
The executive committee of the company's board appointed Mullin as chairman. Mullin, 65, is chairman of Ridgeway Farm, a timber management company in Brookneal, Va., and a former managing director of investment banking firm Dillon, Read & Co.
McGehee, a Navy veteran and native of Mississippi, joined the company in 1997 as senior vice president and general counsel. He was promoted to president and chief operating officer in 2002 and became CEO in March 2004 and chairman in May 2004.
Before he joined Progress, McGehee was board chairman of a Mississippi law firm that worked with electric utilities, including Entergy and Carolina Power & Light, the predecessor of Progress Energy. In the Navy, McGehee was a lieutenant on a nuclear submarine. He is survived by his wife, Jolene; his father; one brother; four children; and two grandchildren.