ou may have heard Sue Sweetra ringing her handbells in concert at Crested Butte’s Union Congregational Church at some point. Sue has been a ringer from the time she was 5 and her father referred to her as a rapscallion at their home in Wheaton, Illinois. Growing up as a Midwestern girl, most of her hobbies revolved around singing in church and school choirs and ringing handbells in church. She tells of the impressive 30-member children’s choir in her First Presbyterian Church. She remained in choir all through high school.
Back in those days, Sue explains, there wasn’t any organized sports except for little league, which girls weren’t allowed to play, so they’d mostly entertain themselves with whiffle ball, bike riding or playing in the stream that ran behind her house. “We’d try to swing across without falling in. We had a free childhood, and there were no phones,” she remembers. When the kids heard the town’s 6 p.m. fire whistle blow, “we knew we had to be home.” Finally, in sixth grade they started up after-school sports and Sue took up softball and soccer, even though she had no idea what soccer was. “But I wanted to try out and when no one wanted to play goalkeeper, I did it. I got pretty good.”
Sue’s parents taught her how to ski when she was 3, and the family would take off to the slopes every week during the winter. Her parents also taught her how to play golf when she was in sixth grade. There were PGA tour events in her town and in conjunction, a kid’s golf program with lessons. “We would get to meet people like Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Arnold Palmer who were there teaching us kids. Just getting to meet pros like them, it made me feel special,” she says.
In high school, Sue continued skiing and playing varsity softball and soccer in a club league. “My best friend and I tried out for the boy’s freshman soccer team in high school because we thought we were good enough, and we were. I was the starting goalkeeper, and she was the starting center mid-fielder.” Sue graduated in 1982 thinking, “Mostly I wanted to ski and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do.” She enrolled at Denver University (DU) as a sports medicine major. “Being a sports med student in a business school was really great because my class sizes were really small and I enjoyed that,” she says. She was there for two years playing soccer and skiing whenever she could, usually at A-Basin.
Sue met her late husband, Cliff Sweetra, in her freshman year at DU. “He was the ski patrolman who picked me up at A-Basin when I fell and separated my shoulder. I was taken down to the clinic. I went back to the patrol months later to ask for the names of the patrollers who helped me so I could make a donation to the volunteer portion. They gave me his name and afterwards I’d pop in to see if I could meet him because I didn’t remember any faces or anybody from that day.” She finally got to meet him four months later. “He invited me to dinner with the ski patrol group and that was the start of things.” They married in December of 1985.
Cliff was working for Martin Marietta, an aerospace company in Denver and was transferred to Washington, D.C. while they were dating. “We were doing the long-distance romance thing,” she says.
She moved after they married, and they were there for 10 years. During that time, Sue returned to school to get a BS in nursing from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in 1995. When Martin Marietta lost their funding for the project Cliff was working on, and with her ability to work anywhere as a nurse, they moved back to Denver. Moving back to Colorado was always their goal, Sue says.
They bought a place high above the town of Evergreen in Brook Forest, and Sue was hired at an Evergreen nursing home, which she recalls, “was not a stellar job for a recent nurse graduate but it sure taught me time management skills.” She was working the graveyard shift in charge of 56 patients. “You learn to coordinate. It was a wonderful learning experience.”
She and Cliff still found time to ski, and Sue had become certified as a ski patrol in 1987 while they were living in Fairfax. The two joined a Nordic backcountry ski patrol called Bryan Mountain Nordic. The patrol was based out of Boulder and responsible for Devil’s Thumb in Fraser and was the first ski patrol to have an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and National Parks to serve the Brainard Lakes area northwest of Nederland and the southern portion of the Rocky Mountain National Park adjacent to it.
In 1996, a friend convinced Sue to fly from Denver to Gunnison for the Kim Reichhelm Ski Adventure week. “That was my first introduction to Crested Butte. I would have driven had I known it was only a four-hour drive,” she laughs. It didn’t take long for Sue to be smitten with town; in fact, it happened as soon as she debarked from a town bus and started walking around. She brought Cliff up the next month, and they bought a town lot across from the school on Eighth and Red Lady. “Cliff looked at me and said, ‘I could retire in this town.’ They spent 15 to 20 weekends a year coming to CB, staying at the Claim Jumper, “that encouraged people to bring their dogs and discouraged children. There were often six dogs under the dining room table,” Sue recalls.
When the Claim Jumper was sold and there weren’t any places that would let them bring their dog, they decided to buy a place in CB South. Later, in 2006, they found their home on Belleview, sold the CB South property and Cliff retired in 2007. But Sue was still working as an operating room nurse at Lutheran Medical Center in Denver, commuting to work from CB, which she did for 14 years. They bought a small apartment in Denver so she could continue work, two weeks on and two weeks off. “You gotta pay the bills,” she laughs. When COVID hit she wasn’t willing to go into ICU as a COVID nurse, “so I basically just retired.” Last Christmas, Sue found a new retirement job as a shuttle driver for Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle. “And I absolutely love it. I get to meet really nice people who are happy to be here and always happy to see you.”
In 2019, Sue suddenly was unable to walk for more than a block without getting completely winded. The tests came back as normal but as a nurse, she requested a chest CT scan with contrast. They found a 2.5 cm mass in her right lung. Two weeks later they removed her lower right lung lobe which was the cure. “The support from this community when I had my lung cancer was insane, people literally came out of the woodwork to offer food, driving and to pick up stuff. I do my best to be that person for other people now too.”
“Most everyone in town knows me from either skiing or my handbells,” Sue says. She started in the UCC Handbell Choir in 2006. This past Christmas, Sue was invited to sing with the chorus in a production of The Messiah with the St. Petersburg Opera and Florida Orchestra in St. Petersburg, Florida. She spent most of the fall taking vocal lessons with WCU’s Lillian Magrinelli. “It was a big deal for me, being some chick from CB, Colorado who gets invited to sing with a professional orchestra and opera singers. I was scared out of my mind,” she tells. But she showed up prepared even though she was nervous for the two-night run, and they invited her back. Sue says that it’s the handbells that are her real love. “They’re a happy place, just me and 25 bells,” she says of her now 53 years of ringing.
Two years ago during COVID, Sue sold her house and moved into a home in Silver Sage with a roommate. Cliff had passed away in 2015. “I’m sure trying to stay in CB. I suspect medically, at some point, my doctor will tell me I have to move down in elevation, but until then, I see myself skiing as much as I can,” and that means Nordic skiing with her dog Cassi. Sue still patrols at Devil’s Thumb as well. She also volunteers with Living Journeys. “I try to do my best, help as many as I can and practice random acts of kindness.”