Villages 101: Who was Sharon L. Morse?

There are two large buildings in The Villages that bear the name of Sharon L. Morse – a medical facility and a performing arts center.

Sharon L. and H. Gary Morse, shown in 1999.

Many residents have, no doubt, gone to a variety of medical appointments in the Sharon L. Morse Medical Center on U.S. Hwy. 27/441. Others surely have enjoyed shows at the performing arts center – it’s commonly known as The Sharon – that anchors Spanish Springs Town Square, where Church on the Square once stood. And many are probably quite familiar with both buildings.

But many Villagers don’t know much about Sharon L. Morse, if anything. Longtime residents know she was the first wife of late Villages Developer H. Gary Morse. But they probably have no idea of her immense contributions to The Villages and the eye-pleasing and functional décor they find in so many facilities in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.

Villages lore has it that the Savannah Center was Sharon L. Morse’s pride and joy. She served as design director of The Villages, the job her daughter, Tracy Mathews, holds today. And the building was her final project before her death in 1999 at age 63.

Sharon was just 63 when she died in December 1999 after a year-long battle with cancer. She and Gary were married in 1957 and moved to Florida in 1983 when Gary’s father, Villages founder Harold Schwartz, asked him to come down and help him develop a small retirement community of mobile homes, known then as Orange Blossom Gardens.

A painting of Sharon L. Morse hangs inside the front doors in the extravagant lobby of the Savannah Center.

Sharon Dolan was the National Cherry Queen of Traverse City, Mich., when she first met Gary Morse. After the couple was married, they lived in a farmhouse across the street from Gary’s mother in Michigan.

A year later, the couple, along with daughter Tracy, moved to Illinois so Morse could learn the advertising and radio business from his father, who carried the distinction of discovering nationally acclaimed disc jockey Wolfman Jack.

Eventually, Gary and Sharon inherited property from his grandmother in Michigan known as Brownwood. Sharon ran their restaurant there that was open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, while Gary conducted advertising business in Chicago.

During those days, Sharon was quite the entertainer. In fact, she sang and danced at the Brownwood eatery alongside her children and family friends as they provided free entertainment for their dining customers.

Sharon L. Morse has been credited with creating the lavish beauty of the Savannah Center – a centerpiece of The Villages community.

After the Morse family moved to Orange Blossom Gardens in 1983, The Villages was soon well on its way to becoming a retirement mecca. Gary was the man leading the charge but Sharon took care of making sure the themes and designs of Villages buildings were impeccable. And as design director – the role her daughter, Tracy Mathews, holds today – she was known throughout the community for her hard work in overseeing the looks of buildings inside and out. Old-time Villagers who knew Sharon will tell you that no detail was too small when it came to the appearance of Villages facilities.

In a tribute to Sharon after her death, family members credited her with creating the overall look and atmosphere of Florida’s Friendliest Hometown, which at the time was home to about 18,000 residents.

Many area residents and dignitaries paid tribute to Sharon, including state Rep. Everett Kelly, who had helped the Morse family get approval for the golf cart bridge over U.S. Hwy. 27/441, and Lady Lake Mayor Hugh Gibson, who later would serve as the state representative from the area.

Sharon L. Morse Medical Center

Prior to her death, Sharon served as the president of the Lake-Sumter Community College Foundation and The Villages Foundation. She was a board member of the Florida Board of Architecture & Interior Design and a member of the American Society of Interior Designers. And she sat on the board of the Tri-County Medical Center Inc. – today, her granddaughter, Lindsey M. Blaise, serves as treasurer for the Central Florida Health board of directors, which oversees The Villages Regional Hospital and Leesburg Regional Medical Center.

Villages lore has it that Sharon Morse’s last project before her death was the Savannah Center. Longtime Villages employees have told the story of her being brought to the facility on a stretcher in her final days to make sure that every detail on the facility was up to her standards. And a large painting that hangs inside the building’s lobby pays tribute to Sharon Morse and everything she did to make The Villages the most unique retirement community in the world.

Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center

Today, Sharon Morse is remembered by the medical building that bears her name and the performing arts center that’s run by her granddaughter, Whitney Morse, a former Chicago actor, and her husband, Jason Goedken.

Sharon, herself, was an accomplished performer, and an avid patron of the arts,” The Sharon’s website states. “While she enjoyed her time on stage, her favorite moments were perhaps those spent with her family watching others perform. She and husband Gary enjoyed the theater in Chicago and shared that joy with their children and grandchildren when they were old enough to attend.”

After Sharon’s death, private services were conducted at the Morse home for the family. Survivors at the time included her husband, Gary; son Mark Gary Morse; daughters Tracy Mathews and Jennifer Parr; and 11 grandchildren.