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WINTER HAVEN - Tal Lewis, a creative spirit who conceived and transformed Orchid Springs in Winter Haven from an unpromising swampland to a unique community of diverse housing embedded in the splendor of nature, died June 12, 2017, in the home he designed and lived in for more than half a century. He was 91.
Unfailingly polite, solicitous of others' opinions, generous with compliments and a great teller of stories, Mr. Lewis was a quintessential southern gentleman of the enlightened variety known for treating friend and stranger alike with interest and respect.
The smallest favor or kindness prompted him to write a note or make a call of thanks -- and to reciprocate the gesture at his earliest opportunity. He came by his courtly manners honestly. His parents were old school and Tal in turn passed on these characteristics to his only progeny, a son, Michael.
Slight in appearance but armed with a deep tidewater Virginia drawl that accentuated his presence, Mr. Lewis attended Kenyon College in Ohio where he studied under such 20th century literary luminaries as John Dos Passos and Robert Penn Warren. His friends there included classmate Paul Newman and professor and poet Robert Frost. For most of his life Tal wrote fiction and other works on a daily basis in an elegant studio he designed and created for that sole purpose.
A consummate storyteller, he drew upon a rich trove of experiences as disparate as attending Hollywood parties while working as a screenwriter in California in his twenties, dashing about New York as a naval officer, cultivating exotic plants in the West Indies and exporting them to the 1964 world's fair, and struggling to make weekly payroll on construction projects as his development of Orchid Springs was just getting off the ground.
Early on he elected to simplify his sartorial choices by limiting his wardrobe to a pair of blue jeans and a long sleeve button down blue oxford cotton shirt. He made a lone exception for weddings, for which he would don a white suit, albeit with the same blue shirt. He invariably carried in his breast pocket a small spiral notebook and ballpoint pen for recording the peculiarities his keen eye observed of daily life, which he incorporated into his writings and his stories.
Born Talbot Preston Lewis on July 6, 1925 in Sharps, Virginia, he was raised by a father who owned Chesapeake oyster beds, and a mother who inculcated a love of learning, literature and history. The family was in fact steeped in history, their property having been surveyed by George Washington. Their relations included three presidents as well as Meriwether Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame.
During World War II, he served as an officer in the U.S. Navy. Moving to California after the service, he met Walt Disney who suggested he buy a Bell & Howell camera and make a short movie. The result, 'Welcome to Hollywood' was debuted at a chamber of commerce event, resulting in his first studio job. His Hollywood career culminated in producing a television show with movie and Broadway star Billie Burke, with whom he shared a close friendship until her death.
He met his wife Ursula, who was then a Pan Am stewardess, in the course of his travels. Mrs. Lewis, an accomplished linguist and translator, died in 2010.
In the last years of his life he donated a large nature preserve contiguous to Orchid Springs, a parcel that was once a banana plantation, to the Green Horizon Land Trust, which named the property the Michael V. Lewis Arboretum.
Mr. Lewis spent decades planting oak, pine, bay trees and a stunning variety of palms on the property, most notably Chinese fan palms of which he personally planted thousands, rising before dawn and laboring until sun and sweat impelled a finish to his day.
Private and reserved, Mr. Lewis was gentle in manner and word. None of his friends are able to recall ever hearing a curse escape his lips.
He is survived by his son, Michael V. Lewis of California, and a cadre of devoted friends. He will be buried alongside his wife at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell with full military honors. A private celebration of his life will take place at a later date.
Memorial donations may be made to Bok Tower Gardens, 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales FL 33853-3470 or Green Horizon Land Trust, PO Box 2445, Lake Wales FL 33859-2445.


Published in Ledger from June 14 to June 15, 2017
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