GETTING HIS DIGS IN

OUTSPOKEN EVERGREEN UNDERTAKER AND REAL-ESTATE DEVELOPER RON LEWIS HAS TWO KINDS OF CUSTOMERS: COMING AND GOING.

The elderly man on the phone explained that his wife was distraught. It had been ten days since they buried their loved one at Evergreen Memorial Park, and she had since learned that the casket wasn't airtight. There would surely be seepage when the mountain snow melted in the spring--and if cold, dirty water could get in, what about other things? It would mean so much to his wife, the man went on, if the deceased could be disinterred and the casket upgraded to a hermetically sealed model--and if their darling's sweater could be changed. The color of the fabric wasn't right, the couple saw now, and they both wanted everything to be right when they laid their beloved toy poodle to rest.

Ron Lewis understood. "It would help them deal with their loss," says the cemetery proprietor. The dog was dug up and placed in a better casket and sweater; then another viewing was held for the couple before their pet's reburial.

There's little that's soft or sentimental about Evergreen Memorial Park's 125 acres of native grass and pines split by barbed wire and scattered with rotted buckboards and rusted farm equipment. Yet Lewis, a controversial real estate developer known among residents of Evergreen and Conifer for his hardheaded style of doing business, harbors a sizable soft spot for those grieving for the departed, whether the departed went with two feet or four. "He cries when his own dogs die," says his wife and business partner, Carol Lewis.

"All living flesh has significance to someone," Ron Lewis says. "We do what we can to help people accept their loss, whether it's their father or their poodle."

With his Amish-style beard, scuffed cowboy boots and work clothes, Lewis seems more sodbuster than millionaire business mogul as he surveys his spread at the Memorial Park: a meadowy roll of fields where buffalo and Appaloosa horses graze beneath the unimposing heights of Berrian Mountain and a bull elk and imported European deer stand in well-fed boredom within chain-link corrals. But Lewis runs ten companies from his woodsy headquarters, a one-story home that looks like a marriage of Swiss chalet and sawmill. Under its shake-shingled roof are housed a water-development business, a road-building outfit, a cable-TV installation company and a buffalo-breeding and big-game-meat concern--not to mention the mortuary, casket showroom and chapel in which Lewis, a nondenominational minister, presides at both funerals and weddings.

From his rear deck, Lewis can take in a good portion of his eccentric mountain empire, parts of which now employ his and Carol's two sons. He can hardly glance in any direction without thinking of a subdivision he's built or ground he's working to break. For over forty years the sixty-year-old entrepreneur has been acquiring and developing mountain property. His holdings stretch from Leadville to Boulder, and his latest project is the Homestead, a 1,200-acre luxury-home development he's building three miles from Tiny Town.

When he began work on the Homestead, Lewis had two century-old homesteader cabins moved from the construction site to his cemetery. They now sit like desiccated playhouses in the Garden of the Pioneers, a popular area where plots go for $1,250. "We deal in dirt," Lewis says, "whether it's a cemetery plot or a luxury-home site."

Lewis talks with the low-key assurance of a man who believes that his conservative values are rooted in the Bible and the U.S. Constitution and takes that as history's endorsement. Lewis, who calls himself "aggressively Republican," has been arrested numerous times during Operation Rescue anti-abortion protests in the Denver area. And his pro-growth and pro-life sentiments have put him at odds with many of his mountain neighbors, not a few of whom reside on land he domesticated.

"He's widely known up here, and not particularly widely liked," says Jim Peterson, president of the homeowners' association of Bear Mountain Vista, a Lewis development that the developer now wants to expand against the wishes of the residents. Prior to the 1976 Olympics, Lewis suggested that the state buy some of his mountain land and use it for a bobsled run and ski-jump area; local residents opposed the idea, which eventually was rendered moot when voters in a state referendum opted against hosting the games.

Some critics call Lewis a throwback to the nineteenth century, and not just because he favors a homesteader getup. "He has a Wild West mentality," says one local slow-growth advocate. But even his enemies agree that, despite his plowboy trappings, he's a smart and savvy adversary.

Lewis remains untroubled at the prospect of being vilified for making mountains into bedroom subdivisions. "Our ministry is to physically make provision for people to enjoy what we've been privileged to enjoy--life here in the mountains," says Lewis, a former seminary student. "God said, `Be fruitful and multiply; fill and subdue the earth.' That is man's duty."

And though he views many of his opponents as standard-bearers for the pagan nation this country has become, Ron Lewis has an undertaker's confidence that in the end they will reach an accommodation with him.

Lewis began doing his part to fill and subdue the earth in 1950, when he was fifteen. A Denver native born to a working-class family, he was obsessed with the idea of making a life for himself in the mountains. Whatever it took, he vowed to own a piece of that rocky earth and force a living from it.

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