Ask any Villages resident the name of the popular-yet-controversial bridge that goes over Lake Sumter and the answer you will most likely get is the Morse Boulevard Bridge.
While it’s true that the bridge is a part of Morse Boulevard, the official name of one of the focal points of Lake Sumter Landing actually is the John E. Parker Bridge. It was officially dedicated in 2004 and it honors a man who played a huge role in the growth of Florida’s Friendliest Hometown for many years.
Most Villagers really don’t know a lot about the bridge that is one of the most photographed structures in The Villages. Many drive over it on a daily basis. But ask them about the unique roadway and you’ll probably hear something about it being an essential link to get across the community and how it always seems to be in the news because of some kind of erosion problem at the embankment that could cost well over a $1 million to fix.
In reality, the bridge is named for retired Villages executive John Parker, who was a close friend of the late Villages Developer Gary Morse when he lived in Michigan. Parker was an engineer and contractor and was tied to Morse because he had built his restaurant for him.
Morse’s father, Harold Schwartz, had asked him to move to Florida to help him develop a small trailer park known as Orange Blossom Gardens. Morse had much bigger plans, so in March 1983, he and wife Sharon took the leap and moved to Central Florida to help grow the small retirement community that at the time was pretty much located in the middle of nowhere.
The Morse children – Tracy, Mark and Jennifer – also would come to Central Florida to help their family with their dreams of creating the ultimate retirement community. But Morse knew he needed someone to oversee construction and development, so by July 1983 he had convinced Parker and his wife, Joyce, to also take the leap of faith and come to Orange Blossom Gardens.
Parker was with Morse in the tough times when money was sometimes scarce. At one point, Morse even sent a memo to his father telling him that so many homes were under construction that they were going to be $100,000 short on cash flow. He asked Schwartz if he could cover the difference or if they should slow down sales.
Schwartz’s response: “Keep selling and build one for me as soon as you can.”
Villages lore has it that Morse bet Parker that he would sell 100 homes in 1983 despite the fact that they had only sold three when the wager was made. Parker, who at one time was the highest ranking Villages official who wasn’t a Morse family member, took the bet. And in the end, Morse lost, as they closed 1983 with 99 home sales.
Parker was with Morse when Spanish Springs Town Square was built one building at a time – whenever enough money would become available. And he was by Morse’s side when the difficult decision was made to move away from building manufactured homes and go to site-built houses.
At that time, The Villages owned a plant (now Ro-Mac Lumber & Supply) on Duck Lake Road – just off Rolling Acres Road – to build the custom mobile homes. Lore has it that they eventually sold a very expensive manufactured home and while everyone was celebrating, Morse and company realized the wave of the future would be site-built homes and they had to move quickly to make that happen.
Parker also was with Morse when they basically made the decision to lay off every contractor and builder working for them. The idea was for those people to start their own businesses and create a path to success for themselves. One of those contractors, Mike West, had been the first Villages employee hired. He would become Parker’s son-in-law and today he oversees home construction for The Villages as the mega-retirement community continues to rapidly grow south of State Road 44 in Wildwood and Leesburg.
Parker, who is now 80 and has a grandson named in honor him and Morse – Parker Morse West – retired in the mid-2000s after helping to create the largest retirement community in the world. He was responsible for some huge successes. And after Morse died in October 2014, he appeared in a touching video that was shown to a large group of Villages department heads at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center talking about his friend and what it meant to work for him.
After retiring, Parker has helped his daughter, Janet West, with her salon businesses. West started her career in The Villages “behind the chair” and opened her first salon in 1986. Known for giving back to the community through several charities, she is the owner of Tenaj Salon Institute (previously known as The Salon Professional Academy) and Salon Jaylee.
West celebrated 30 years in the salon business in 2016 and 10 years in the business of educating salon professionals. And today, according to her website, she operates three salons and the 10,000-square-foot accredited cosmetology school. She’s also a beauty product distributor, owner of a beauty supply store and the developer of her own hair care line.
Parker and his wife, Joyce, also had a son, Jeff, who died in 2008 at the age of 37. Sumter County property records show that the couple owns a home on Saddlebrook Circle in Glen Hollow Farms, located behind the Hampton Inn on County Road 466. The 3,847-square-foot residence was built in 1998 and is located just down the street from a similar 2,874-square-foot home owned by Mike and Janet West.