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The Billionaire Who Remade Retirement Living On A Massive Scale

Gary Morse, with wife Sharon, in 1999. Morse transformed a mobile home park in Florida into The Villages, a retirement community of more than 100,000 residents.
Stephen M. Dowell
Orlando Sentinel
Gary Morse, with wife Sharon, in 1999. Morse transformed a mobile home park in Florida into The Villages, a retirement community of more than 100,000 residents.

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."

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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