GETTING HIS DIGS IN
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.
What it took was his motorcycle. Following an accident that the law blamed on his driving, Lewis was told by a judge to sell his bike or face jail time. Then came a coincidence in which he detected the hand of the Lord: Lewis happened on an ad for land in the foothills community of Indian Hills, forty acres up for trade for anything of value. The seller agreed to take Lewis's motorcycle and cash.
Young Lewis had picked up construction know-how by working weekends and summers in the trade. It was enough, he says, to enable him to knock together a rude approximation of a house, which he was able to sell the next year, partially covering his tuition at Colorado State University.
From there his progression to the cemetery trade was natural. By the age of eighteen he was devoting his summer breaks to hauling fertilizer, painting houses and building homes in the Evergreen area. The young construction magnate also owned his own backhoe, a fact that caught the attention of a local family that for years had been stuck with the task of digging graves at the community burial ground.
"They called and told me it was time to start doing my part," Lewis recalls. He was instructed to ready a plot for a recently departed resident. He did, only to get a call several days later. "They said, `Hey, you didn't put the covers on the poor guy,'" he remembers. A sheepish Lewis went back and filled in the grave.
Performing his new duties wasn't often easy. The steep dirt road to the burial area was eroded and treacherous in bad weather. At times, he recalls, the rocky site required blasting to loosen the earth. And it wasn't unusual for Lewis to begin digging at a spot picked by mourners in the poorly maintained cemetery only to discover that it was already occupied.
As the Evergreen area grew, Ron Lewis found more and more uses for his talents. His business empire expanded. "I'm an opportunist," he admits, though he sees his opportunities as God's opportunities.
The more digging Ron Lewis did in the graveyard near Evergreen, the more he wished for a cemetery that was better organized, roomier and more accessible. He didn't want a prissy city cemetery, though: he figured the place ought to share the rough, unpretentious character of the area. So in 1965 he bought the first section of his property below Berrian Mountain and started Evergreen Memorial Park.
Today Lewis looks with satisfaction out at the straggle of dilapidated buckboards, tillers and tractors that give his cemetery the look of pastureland with a past. "We don't manicure the grass or plant flowers here," he says. "This is the West, and things are kind of crude and abrupt. But it's real."
Lewis performed his first graveside service early in his backhoe career at the old community cemetery. As he waited for a group of relatives to say their goodbyes to a dead man prior to one burial, Lewis, who spent three years at a Denver Baptist seminary after graduating from CSU, was approached by a member of the party. "You going to say something for my dad?" she asked. "Her dad wasn't religious, and there was no minister there," Lewis remembers, "so I took off my coveralls and said a few words. The people thought it helped."
It's the same basic service Lewis still works at, preparing to preside at funerals by learning as much as he can about the deceased. "After one service, a guy came up to me and said, `Can I check the box?' he recalls. "I asked him what he meant," Lewis says. "He said, `Either I'm at the wrong funeral or you've got the wrong guy in the box. I knew the son of a bitch.'"
The least expensive funeral service Lewis offers is a simple cremation. For $550, the client gets "immediate removal of the remains, cremation and a plastic can of ashes." He doesn't recommend it. "We're a territorial species," he says. "We need a place to go that's our own."
"Inurnment" plots half the size of a regular grave can be had in the Garden of the Pioneers for only $375. Or for $750, space awaits one's cremains in a frontier-style columbarium, a monument of mortared rock and old timbers that looks like half a cabin wedged into a fireplace. Not one to make less than efficient use of land, Lewis is also filling a ravine in the park with double-depth vaults. The floor of the gully has been leveled, and rows of the five-foot concrete sleeves are lined up side by side, their rims a foot below ground level, waiting like file drawers for contents meant to be "Together Forever," as one marker reads.
Most of the cemetery, however, is restricted to flat grave markers, giving the grounds a sprawling high plains look broken here and there by small stands of young, dwarfish trees. Gazing over the rolling terrain and beyond a pond that might have recently been a watering hole, the eye jolts over ten acres of Lewis-owned fields that have been equipped with soccer nets. Two turquoise Porta-Lets jut up in the corner.
"There'll be 700 kids here Saturday playing soccer," Lewis explains. "I don't think it's inappropriate to celebrate life in a place that honors death."
The cache of Old West memorabilia on display at his homesite also is a drawing card for school kids, Lewis adds, pointing to a rack of aged carbines that sits above a row of sample funeral urns in his office. Against another wall leans an armload of tarnished swords; scattered between his office and Carol's are various Indian implements and collectibles. "We're almost a museum here," Lewis says.
And almost a zoo. Behind an eight-foot Cyclone fence at Evergreen Memorial Park, the goatlike deer imported from Europe flit half-spooked around a half-acre of dirt, skittering like blown leaves into a tin shed at a human's approach. In a larger chain-link enclosure, a large bull elk stands, its antlers soaring against the grid of the ten-foot fence.
"It's fun for kids to get a look at wildlife," says Lewis of his makeshift wild-animal park. "Some of the schools have field trips out here."
Lewis's "game preserve" strikes some observers as merely crude. "Why would you want to look at elk in a pen when you can see them wandering free through your own front yard?" asks area resident Howard Morton, who chairs the Mt. Evans chapter of the Sierra Club. "If you want to see buffalo, you can drive up to the overlook off I-70 twelve miles from there," Morton adds.
Lewis shrugs off criticism of his animal collection. He keeps the buffalo, elk and deer for business reasons as well, he notes, selling the offspring to slaughterhouses that cater to customers seeking low-cholesterol red meats.
"Our ministry is to people," says Lewis. Serve your fellow man and you serve God, he believes. Which is why Lewis the undertaker does pet funerals. "I don't do funerals for dogs, I do funerals for people--to help them heal from their loss," he explains. Lewis has seen more than one person grieve harder for a dog than for a parent.
Animals laid to rest in Memorial Park's pet cemetery now total about 45, with horses, deer and elk among the group. And Lewis is willing to go the extra yard for the bereaved pet owner--right up to providing grooming and embalming services for the deceased.
The animals he keeps on the other side of the wire fit in with Lewis's view of life and death, reminding him of the closeness of nature and the need for man to manage it. Sorting out good breeding stock includes "selective destruction," keeping the best and sending the rest to slaughter, Lewis explains. It's the same with land developing. Building involves destruction--a fact of life that parts Lewis from the company of those who see themselves as defenders of nature.
For fifteen years he's been fighting the tide of popular opinion on Bear Mountain Vista, a luxury-home development he began in the Sixties and sold in part, he says, to then-developer Roy Romer, whose company put in an adjoining subdivision called Evergreen Highlands.
Lewis's development five miles south of Evergreen includes a number of residences ringing a 33-acre meadow--a prime parcel that the residents themselves have prevented him from subdividing. "They call it `our meadow,'" Lewis complains. "I've owned it for 32 years."
The homeowners counter that Lewis's development of the meadow would deplete the area's already overtaxed water table. "We're all on wells, and our wells are drawing down," says Jean Pulliam, a retiree and member of the local homeowners' association. Additional development would also worsen the quality of water in the Indian Hills area, downslope of Bear Mountain, Pulliam says.
Lewis says he has commissioned geological reports that refute both of those claims. But Jim Peterson, a geologist who is president of the homeowners' association, calls those reports "a crock." According to Peterson, rather than hire a geologist to do the analysis, Lewis used an engineer who applied flatland hydrology to Bear Mountain and made false assumptions about the recharge rate of groundwater below the meadow.
Lewis says his expert is a water resource engineer whose conclusions were based on a geologist's survey of the area. Both sides will argue their cases before the Jefferson County commissioners at a hearing October 18.
"There's now an almost universal paranoia over growth, both on a local scale and on a worldwide scale," says Lewis, who discerns direct parallels between the Bear Mountain controversy and the recent global conference on population held in Egypt, a gathering he calls "a repudiation of human fecundity."
"People like to move here, but they don't like it to change," adds the developer, who's also battling residents at the Homestead over his plans to shrink new lot sizes. "Well, the Indians didn't like it, either. They resisted and they lost." Growth is inevitable, he believes, and anti-growth laws are futile.
"People talk about keeping things like they were in the good old days," Lewis says. "Well, I was here, and those days weren't so good. There were no paved roads, no school busing system, no auditorium, no pool, no sports programs, no cable TV and no decent phone service. All that came because of growth. There's still plenty of room in our land to grow."
Lewis is "a hard person for the homeowners to do business with," says Jean Pulliam. "I believe he'd do almost anything to succeed in developing whatever property he's interested in. He doesn't hesitate to go into litigation to get what he wants."
If the county commissioners rule against him next month, Lewis warns, he will pursue the Bear Mountain matter in court.
What his enemies view as ruthlessness, Lewis's friends see as tenacity. "Ron lives what he believes in," says Chuck Madison, who has known Lewis for a dozen years. When faced with a person who holds an opposing view, Lewis maintains his position "consistently, without being belligerent," according to Madison, who describes his friend as "very patient and caring."
Likewise, Lewis takes seriously his role as his brother's keeper. "He's one of the most community-minded people I know," says Madison, citing Lewis's support of Mountain Area Alternatives, a counseling and support service founded by Lewis and like-minded associates to give pregnant women an alternative to abortion. "He owns the building where they're located," says Madison, "and I know he's carried them when they couldn't keep up the rent."
Lewis himself traces his activism against abortion to a day more than two decades ago when he transported a body from his mortuary to a Denver-area crematorium. There he happened upon the remains of dozens of fetuses awaiting cremation. "I asked, `Whose babies are those?'" he remembers. "`Products of conception,'" he says he was told. "They sure looked like human beings to me."
A member of Operation Rescue, Lewis has no qualms about being arrested in abortion protests. "A statement needs to be made against abortionists," he says. "These doctors must be held accountable for their actions." Picketing the houses of physicians is an acceptable tactic, he says, but he draws the line at violence in the name of the unborn. "Christ's message is one of love and compassion," he says.
"There are a few subjects Ron and I can't discuss," says Sharon Klusman, a pro-choice Republican who recently made a primary run for her party's nomination in the Second Congressional District. "But I've found him to be a very generous man who puts his money where his mouth is to help his community. He takes people who are down on their luck into his own home."
Lewis confirms he occasionally brings in homeless people, billeting the odd transient on a cot in his casket-display room. "They usually don't stay very long," he says. And some good deeds go unrewarded, notes Madison. "I know one time Ron's car ended up in Florida," he says.
"We've lost three or four cars over the years," Lewis acknowledges. "There are certain hazards anytime you extend yourself. Those kids needed help. Our goal was to try to give them some discipline and lead them into a learning experience. Lives aren't going to be changed until somebody gets personally involved. We did what we could, and it turned out we lost a car."
Lewis feels bound to lead others into learning experiences. Before weddings, he asks the bride and groom whether they'd like to invite Jesus Christ to the service. Those who decline are left to cringe when Lewis interrupts the wedding to point out their snub of the savior.
A quietly relentless proselytizer, Lewis departs from a discussion of his Christian activism to ask a reporter to join him for grace over lunch at Denny's. Without waiting for a reply, he bows his head and prays aloud, certain his lead will be followed.
According to those who've crossed paths with him politically, Ron Lewis has always had a way of leading where others will follow. Linda Williams, who heads the Democratic Party in Jefferson County, has run up against Lewis at several public meetings on growth issues affecting the Evergreen-Conifer area. "He's persistent," she says. "He knows how to get others who share his beliefs to line up behind him."
Earlier this year Lewis succeeded in packing a county hearing on a proposal prohibiting the subdivision of parcels smaller than 35 acres without the county's okay, says Williams. By financing a mailing to every property owner whose land might be affected--and, claims Williams, misrepresenting the proposal as a threat to the right of property owners to pass their land on to their heirs--Lewis filled the room with older ranchers and cowboy types whose very appearance generates a sympathetic resonance in any elected official with an American bone in his or her body.
"He's very smart," says Williams. "But I disagree with that Wild West attitude of his that you can do whatever you want with a piece of property you own no matter what the effect is on the general good."
"Being American should mean you can sell what you own without government interference," replies Lewis. "The Constitution guarantees free alienation of personal property."
And though it's unlikely he'll stop feuding with his neighbors who see things in a different light, Ron Lewis has a sunny faith there will in the end come a meeting of mortal adversaries on common ground. Or in it. At Evergreen Memorial Park, reminds Lewis, "it's never too late to come to the mountains.
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