04 July 2009

Email from a former Villages employee -- quite interesting!

Dear Mr. Blechman,

I just finished reading "Leisureville," and it inspired me to write you. I worked for The Villages in the "old days," in the 1980s and '90s, for what was then The Orange Blossom Sun.

As such, I was fascinated -- and disturbed -- by your interview with the young reporters now working for the Daily Sun. The idea of discarding back issues of the paper, destroying one's reporting notes and having one's computer routinely scrubbed by the company would have been unthinkable to us.

Harold Schwartz's philosophy was to hire good people to run his departments, then stay out of their way. At the Sun, that person was our publisher, an Orange Blossom Gardens (OBG for short) resident named Adelaide Carpenter, a retired journalist from Hawaii. In addition to running stories, press releases and columns written by resident volunteers, our staff covered various happenings within the community, as well as Lady Lake government. When Harold was running things, we were never told what to print, or chastised for reporting events which might cast the developer in an unfavorable light. When someone climbed a fence on the back side of OBG property, stole a golf cart and burglarized a number of houses, we ran the story without being censored.

That changed when Harold bowed out from running the company day-to-day in about 1994, and Gary Morse took over, after the community had been renamed The Villages. At one point, Gary decided he wanted to de-annex the original Orange Blossom Gardens section from Lady Lake to form his own government (this was before the CDD was formed). We were told that an entire issue of the paper was to be devoted to presenting a clearly biased, one-sided presentation of the issue favorable to the developer. To her credit, Ad Carpenter resisted, and went to Harold with her objections. Eventually, a compromise was reached in which we were allowed to cover the story from both sides in the body of the paper, but a special four-page insert pushing de-annexation was published. When the referendum came, the majority of residents in the Lady Lake portion of The Villages voted to remain tied to the city. I'd like to think our straight reporting had something to do with that.

I'm also proud to say that we were not intimidated by Gary, who Ad derisively called "H. God." At one point, Gary said to us, "I'm not spending all this money so you can play newspaper." To which Ad responded, "We're professionals. We're not playing."

Ultimately, of course, Gary won, and not just in our department. At the Recreation Department, which had been run since the beginning of Harold's involvement in OBG by a pair of twin sisters named Cricket and Janet Jordan, Gary installed the wife of the corporate attorney in a specially created position to "supervise" the Jordans. Eventually, Gary convinced Harold that the Jordans had been disloyal to him and were working to subvert his vision of The Villages -- which wasn't true -- and they were fired. The employees who had worked for years with the Jordans either got fired themselves or resigned in protest. One Rec Department underling who survived the blood-letting was a relative newcomer, an enthusiastic but, to my recollection, none-too-bright young man named John Rohan. Yes, that John Rohan.

Similar blood-lettings occurred in all the departments, as people loyal to Harold were let go. Eventually, that included Ad and me. We tried to start our own independent newspaper, but were unable to secure financing. Eventually, I pursued a career opportunity in the Florida Keys. Four years later, I received a call from Ad telling me she had been diagnosed with cancer, but was optimistic she could beat it. Less than a month later, her daughter called me to tell me Ad had passed away.

At the end of "Leisureville," you speculate about what H. Gary Morse might think about what he has wrought. I knew the man fairly well. I suspect what was true then is true now: He pays lip-service to playing by the rules, but he's not above changing the rules when it suits his purposes. Harold was gregarious. He cared about the residents, he identified with them, and he enjoyed mingling with them. He would never have had a private skybox put into the movie theaters. Gary, on the other hand, sees the residents as a necessary nuisance. If he could find a way to make millions of dollars off The Villages without catering to them, he'd do it. He cares about no one but himself, and about nothing but the bottom line.

Harold wanted to build a community where working class retirees could buy in for a modest price and live like millionaires. Gary wants a community where you have to be a millionaire to gain entry.

I apologize for rambling, but your book sparked all these memories. One last story to illustrate Gary's persona and how he sees the elements of the empire he has created as mere tools to serve his own ends:

In 1992, when Bill Clinton made his first run for the presidency, he made one of his famous "Bus Tours" through Central Florida, starting in Daytona Beach, heading over to Orlando, then coming north to Ocala. His route would take him up Highway 441, the highway which cuts through the heart of The Villages. We thought it would be a good story for us if we could arrange a stop at The Villages. Ad called Rep. Everett Kelley, the State Representative who helped get the golf cart bridge built (and who was a Democrat at the time), and he thought it would be a good opportunity for Mr. Clinton to address seniors' issues, so he arranged it. Clinton drew a good-sized crowd, and The Villages TV station's anchor, Kevin Coughlin, and his cameraman somehow evaded the Secret Service cordon, mixed in with the press corps covering Clinton, and got an interview with him. Needless to say, they were proud of their coup, and kept it in the news loop for a couple of weeks. Then one day Gary called the head of VNN. He had seen the interview of Clinton still running on the station, and he was furious: "Get that son of a bitch off my TV station!" The interview was pulled immediately.

We knew that was the beginning of the end for us.

Thank you for writing this book.


Anonymous said...

I too am a former employee. I left the rec dept in may '91 just before the twins. I remember Ad Carpenter, great person.

54 said...

Take a real good look at www.lakexposed.com and you'll find out that your expectations on H Gary Schwartz Morse were right on que.