Villages Developer H. Gary Morse was known for many things – shunning the spotlight, wielding significant political power and giving residents “Disneyland for Adults” – but he will always be known as the genius with the vision to turn Florida’s Friendliest Hometown into the much-lauded and biggest retirement community in the world.
When Morse died on Oct. 29, 2014 at the age of 77, his family vowed to keep his vision alive. And they promised to continue to make The Villages the premier retirement choice for those who wanted to spend the best years of their lives in a place that offered everything from three town squares to nightly entertainment to low drink prices to recreation centers, pools, restaurants and theaters, among other things.
Morse, who also was known for his love of buffalo, first came to Central Florida in 1983 when his father, Villages founder Harold Schwartz, asked him to help manage a small mobile home park he’d acquired. At the time, the park, Orange Blossom Gardens, had just 386 mobile homes, a clubhouse and just a few shuffleboard courts. And sales were extremely slow.
But Morse, armed with a background in advertising and marketing, took on the challenge with gusto. He moved his family – wife Sharon and children Tracy, Mark and Jennifer – to Central Florida and quickly hit the ground running in coming up with ways to expand the community that would soon be known as The Villages.
Morse and Schwartz quickly started making improvements. Swimming pools, golf courses and recreational activities were added. And 99 homes were sold in the remainder of 1983, with another 277 sold in 1984.
The rich history of The Villages recalls the days when money was tight and Morse was doing whatever he could to pay the bills. He had trusted friends John Parker and Rick Murray helping him in the fledgling venture (Parker would end up serving as the highest ranking non-family member in the company and Murray would oversee home construction until his retirement). And he had the full support of his father, who once vowed to cover the bills when so many homes were under construction that Morse feared a $100,000 shortfall was coming.
One of Morse’s biggest accomplishments was leading the effort to move from mobile homes to site-built houses in the community – a huge venture considering the fact that he also owned a factory to build those manufactured homes on Rolling Acres Road that now houses Ro-Mac Lumber.
Villages lore has it that he once “fired” all of the home builders and then helped them establish their own successful construction businesses, including The Villages’ first employee, Mike West, who is married to Parker’s daughter, Janet West, owner of Tenaj Salon Institute and Salon Jaylee.
Villages lore also had it that Morse once drew his vision for Spanish Springs Town Square on a napkin while having dinner with wife Sharon and some other guests. That drawing, which was centered around Katie Belle’s and the Gazebo in town square, served as the blueprint for Spanish Springs and really didn’t change much from his original concept.
Morse also was known throughout the country for his love of politics and his unwavering support of the Republican Party. He was on a first-name basis with President George W. Bush and his family. And he held the elite status of being a “Ranger” on Bush’s re-election donor list, which meant he had rounded up least $200,000 in contributions for the president – thousands of dollars of which came from his family, Villages businesses, department heads and employees.
In October 2004, in the midst of Bush’s heated re-election bid against Democrat John Kerry, it was announced that the president was coming to The Villages. He was joined by his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who also enjoyed immense support from Morse.
“I am proud to be the first sitting president ever to have visited The Villages,” Bush said, while addressing the crowd of about 15,000 people packed into Market Square as Secret Service agents made their way through the crowd and snipers were pitched on rooftops. “The other ones missed out on a lot.”
It should come as no surprise that Morse’s clout was well-known throughout the Republican Party. He was seen as a powerful fundraiser for campaigns. And he literally put The Villages on the map as the place GOP candidates made a point to visit during various elections.
In fact, during Morse’s time in The Villages, a virtual who’s who of the Republican Party made campaign stops in the community. In addition to the Bush brothers, that listed includes Mitt Romney (he carried Morse’s backing in 2008 and 2012), Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Paul Ryan, Rudy Giuliani, New Gingrich, Dick Cheney, Gov. Charlie Crist and Gov. Rick Scott, to name a few.
Conservative television commentators also made it a point to visit The Villages when Morse was running the show. Glenn Beck made more than one trip here. “Fox & Friends” broadcast live from Lake Sumter Landing Market Square. And Sean Hannity’s show aired live from Florida’s Friendliest Hometown as well.
Morse, who was appointed by Bush to serve on the United States Air Force Academy Board of Visitors, also served as a member of the Electoral College. Villages lore has it that he even had the privilege of casting the vote that sent Bush to Washington, D.C. after the controversial “hanging chad” election of 2000.
During his tenure as Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush was a frequent visitor to The Villages. It’s believed that he occasionally enjoying coming to the community for rest and relaxation. And he was on hand to dedicate The Villages Charter Middle School in August 2001 and to serve as keynote speaker for the first graduating class at The Villages High School in 2006.
Like his father, Morse also put a huge value on health care. Schwartz was adamant about The Villages having its own hospital and he lived long enough to see that become a reality. But Morse took it a step further by creating a primary-care-driven system of medicine – The Villages Health – designed to head off health issues before they occurred and keep Villagers healthy while they enjoyed lower healthcare costs.
Morse led the charge to create The Villages Health in 2012, starting out with six primary care centers and a specialty care center that originally was in partnership with the University of South Florida. The premise was to have “Marcus Welby”-type doctors practicing in The Villages who would form long-term relationships with their patients. And they would be compensated for quality rather than quantity – a huge shift from the standard fee-for-service, test-heavy healthcare models that existed across the country.
Prior to his death, Morse made it quite clear that he wanted his legacy to be the effort to create “America’s Healthiest Hometown” in The Villages. And he said he wanted Villages Health clinics to be like the offices of those trusted and friendly family doctors from days gone by.
Those who knew Morse know that he had a clear dream for the community. He once battled with an adversarial Sumter County Commission for the right to continue building south of County Road 466. And he was victorious in continuing to expand the community despite numerous efforts from Oxford hay farmer Dan Farnsworth to block growth based on water concerns.
But today’s Villages is much different than the one Morse knew. He had been adamant about the community stopping at State Road 44. It was a promise he had made to the Sumter County Commission back in the day when he was fighting to keep the community’s growth moving forward. And he was even quoted in his developer-owned newspaper vowing not to build homes on the other side of SR 44.
That was many years ago and a different commission asked The Villages to continue building. And that led to the Village of Fenney, the Villages of Southern Oaks and a 1,127-acre parcel of land in Leesburg near the Florida Turnpike.
Would Morse have been in favor the continued growth? Some believe he would have insisted on stopping at State Road 44 because he’d promised to do so. Others question if he would have agreed to build portions of the community that couldn’t immediately be golf cart accessible to all residents. And many wonder if he would have said the community was going to be too big to effectively oversee if the massive growth continued.
We’ll never know the answers to those questions. But those who knew Morse know that today’s Villages appears to have a much different agenda with a different culture and feel of the community he effectively oversaw for so many years.
Morse was survived by his second wife, Renee, son Mark Morse, two daughters, Tracy Morse and Jennifer Parr, and stepson Justin Wilson. He also was survived by 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He was laid to rest in a private ceremony and in lieu of flowers the family asked that donations be made to The Villages Charter School, which carries the Buffalo as its mascot in Morse’s honor.