Harold Gary Morse, who transformed his father's cluster of a few hundred mobile homes in central Florida into the gigantic retirement utopia The Villages and made it a must-stop on campaign trails with his funding of Republican politics, has died. He was 77.
Morse died Wednesday, according to The Villages Daily Sun, the newspaper that Morse once owned. No cause of death was given.
Over the past few decades, The Villages grew into a sprawling, unmatched symbol of a new American ideal of retirement, a veritable Disney World of the old and not-so-old. Kids were allowed to visit, but banned from living there. Morse assumed control in 1983, and built what is today the home to nearly 100,000 people in one of the nation's fastest-growing areas.
It wasn't the first place to congregate so many older adults together — developer Del Webb built Sun City in Arizona and Sun City Center in Florida at the start of the 1960s. But it is unmatched in both the breadth of its vision and its scale: 600 holes of golf, dozens of restaurants and stores, and so many activities — archery to scrapbooking to Spanish classes — that it almost seems like summer camp for seniors. Residents zip along in souped-up golf carts to town squares that look like Hollywood sets, downing cheap margaritas and dancing in gazebos before returning to homes that range from simple ranches under $90,000 to mansions topping $1 million.
"He basically built a Sun City on steroids," said Andrew Blechman, author of a book on the development, "Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children."
"Gary Morse was a wizard and The Villages was his Oz," Blechman said.
Each election season, that Oz became the home to roaring crowds eager to greet a parade of candidates who hoped to collect the votes of doting seniors, and the contributions of Morse, who pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Republican candidates and committees and loaned them his jet.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Morse "demonstrated what makes our state so great — the idea that anyone can make a positive, lasting impact in the lives of generations to come."
Another Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio, called Morse "a friend" and said he "looked at the pastures and prairies of Florida's interior and saw the American dream — not just for him, but for the tens of thousands of seniors who have been able to enjoy their golden years and continue to live them to their fullest."
Jeff Johnson, director of the AARP in Florida, said Morse reshaped the traditional idea of retirement communities from towering condos into a more suburban feel so packed with activities that residents say they're busier than when they worked full time. Its place as a political landmark, he said, was unmistakable.
"When's the last time you saw someone running for president, particularly conservatives, who didn't visit The Villages?" he asked.
A spokesman for The Villages did not return calls and an email seeking comment. Morse's family released a statement to the Daily Sun on Thursday.
"Dad never sought the limelight," the statement read. "He was content to stay in the background and enjoy seeing Villagers revel in this amazing lifestyle of their adopted hometown. While he was a friend and adviser to captains of industry, presidents and heads of state, he never lost focus on this community and making it the greatest retirement development in the world."
Morse is survived by his wife, Renee; son, Mark; two daughters, Tracy Mathews and Jennifer Parr; and stepson Justin Wilson, according to the Daily Sun. He also is survived by 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His first wife, Sharon, preceded him in death in 1999. He will be laid to rest in a private ceremony, the newspaper said.