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The Billionaire Who Remade Retirement Living On A Massive Scale

Oct 30, 2014
Originally published on October 30, 2014 6:41 pm

Gary Morse, a visionary property developer, transformed a Florida mobile home park into the nation's largest retirement community. The billionaire died Wednesday at the age of 77.

Under Morse's direction, The Villages, northwest of Orlando, redefined retirement living. It's a community that is remarkable most of all for its size — home to nearly 100,000 residents living in dozens of communities, spread over an area the size of Manhattan.

In a state known for diversity, The Villages, according to the 2010 census, is more than 96 percent non-Hispanic white. And there are twice as many Republicans as Democrats living there — a fact not lost on those running for national office, like former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. In 2008, tens of thousands of residents turned out for her in a huge rally.

Nearly four years later, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney burst into song, holding an impromptu sing-along in The Villages of "America the Beautiful."

The people who live in The Villages say the attention from politicians is nice, but there's something else, they say, that makes the place special.

Bill Gottschalk, president of the homeowners association, sums it up in two words: "the lifestyle." What drew him to The Villages, he says, was the golf, the recreation and the active town centers. "The entertainment at the town squares was just outstanding."

In the early 1980s, when Morse took over the community from his father, it was a mobile home park known as Orange Blossom Gardens. Over the years, he transformed it into The Villages, upgrading from mobile homes to homes built on the site.

Morse was a prominent Republican fundraiser, giving millions of dollars over the years to candidates like George W. Bush, for whom he was a member of the Electoral College.

You didn't see Morse around The Villages much and he rarely gave interviews. Gottschalk never met him, but he still feels the loss. "I believe that one of the best things that Gary leaves behind is a wonderful community that we call home," he says.

The Villages continues to be a family-run business; Morse's children are now in charge of what the company calls "Florida's friendliest retirement hometown."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Billionaire developer Gary Morse was a visionary. He transformed a Florida mobile home park into the nation's largest retirement community. It's called The Villages. Morse died yesterday at the age of 77. NPR's Greg Allen says, under Morse's direction, The Villages, northwest of Orlando, redefined retirement living.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The Villages is remarkable most of all for its size. It's home to nearly 100,000 residents living in dozens of communities, spread over an area the size of Manhattan. In a state known for diversity, The Villages, according to the 2010 Census, is more than 96 percent non-Hispanic white. And there are twice as many Republicans who live there as Democrats - a fact not lost on those running for national office, like the vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH PALIN: It is such a privilege...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting) Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.

ALLEN: Tens of thousands of people turned out for Palin in 2008. Nearly four years later, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney burst into song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties.

ALLEN: The people who live in The Villages say, the attention from politicians is nice, but there's something else that makes The Villages special.

BILL GOTTSCHALK: The lifestyle.

ALLEN: Bill Gottschalk, president of the Homeowners Association, says, what drew him to The Villages was the golf, the recreation and the active town centers. In the early 1980s, when Gary Morse took over the community from his father, it was a mobile home park known as Orange Blossom Gardens. Over the years, he transformed it into The Villages, upgrading from mobile home to homes built on the site. Morse was a prominent Republican fundraiser, giving millions of dollars over the years to candidates like George W. Bush, for whom he was a member of the Electoral College. You didn't see Morse around The Villages much. Homeowners Association Pres. Bill Gottschalk never met him, but he still feels the loss.

GOTTSCHALK: I believe one of the best things that Gary leaves behind is a wonderful community that we call home.

ALLEN: The Villages continues to be a family run business, with Morse's children now in charge of what the company calls Florida's friendliest retirement hometown. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.