By DINA ARÉVALO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
Liz Sweeten was known by many throughout town. The former reporter for the Port Isabel – South Padre Press could often be seen walking along the streets of old Port Isabel. To work, to the convenience store, or just around her neighborhood, Liz loved to walk. And it was while she was out for a walk last Sunday evening that Liz’s life was cut short.
Elizabeth “Liz” Abbott Sweeten was walking along Musina Street, crossing against the tourist traffic of a congested Queen Isabella Boulevard when a motorcyclist who was travelling too fast in the shoulder of the highway struck and killed her. Officials say her death was instantaneous.
It was news that sent shockwaves through this small Laguna Madre community, where Liz had touched many lives throughout her decades as a reporter for the PRESS. Her former colleagues and friends remembered her this week, many sharing memories of her intrepid reporting. Variations of the phrase “reported the truth as she saw it” were uttered more than once by those who shared their recollections, as were the words “intelligent” and “passionate.”
“We met almost 40 years ago when we all worked at the PRESS together,” recalled Betty Wells, who now serves as the director of the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce. “She was a great reporter. She told the truth as she saw it,” Wells said.
“Elizabeth’s forte was straight news, and she wrote her stories as she saw them,” echoed Martha McClain, who previously served as a reporter for the PRESS and editor of the PRESS’ sister paper, the San Benito News. Currently, McClain writes for the PRESS as a freelancer.
“Whether it was covering the Water District, Navigation District or School District, she was unbiased, relied on facts and hunted down the truth … and almost always found it, much to the dismay of some politicians,” McClain wrote in a column which can be read in full at portisabelsouthpadre.com.
Will Everett, another former colleague and friend, reached out to the PRESS to share some of Sweeten’s own words, which she shared with him in an email several years ago. “It’s something she wanted me to include in her obit, if that ever happened. And here that sad day is upon us,” Everett wrote in an email of his own.
“Got along well with animals; even pet a wild opossum once. Was instrumental in the founding of the American Tarantula Society (ATS),” Sweeten wrote in her 2012 email to Everett.
“Was instrumental in the founding of Treehouse Productions and had roles in two radio dramas. Was a journalist (of sorts) for 30+ years; believed in the profession until hit by the baseball bat of reality,” she continued.
Sweeten also loved nature and wildlife, she wrote, and quipped about her culinary skills. “A relatively good cook, given the opportunity,” Sweeten wrote.
Everett said Sweeten liked to refer to herself as the “cataLIZ” “because of her ability to make things happen for others.”
“She was a strange and unique human being full of fiery passion and insane devotion to causes she believed in. When she was at the Press she demonstrated relentless integrity to the truth,” Everett said.
PRESS publisher Ray Quiroga worked with Sweeten briefly when he first began his tenure at the paper. He described her as “extraordinarily cerebral.”
“Liz was a unique spirit, to say the least,” Quiroga said.
Upon hearing the news of her death, former Publisher Ben Brooks also reached out to the PRESS to reminisce about the woman who helped the paper write the first draft of Laguna Madre history for approximately three decades. “I worked with Liz for 11 years from 1994-2005,” Brooks wrote in an email. “She was a good reporter and played a key role in covering all of the important stories that took place in the lower Laguna Madre during that time,” he said.
“Her reporting was always fair, but that didn’t mean Liz didn’t have strong opinions on just about every topic under the sun. She was very well read and intelligent and we debated everything from politics to religion,” he said.
Sweeten lived not far from the PRESS offices. As such, she often walked nearby, where Quiroga would sometimes bump into her. The pair would pause to chat. And, like Brooks, the PRESS’ current publisher agreed Liz loved to talk shop. “Her passion for the community and local politics was still among her favorite topics of discussion,” Quiroga said.
Betty Wells agreed. “We’d just get together and talk about life, politics and religion,” Wells said. She, Sweeten and Martha McClain turned their friendship into a bit of a club, calling is Club 30 before changing the name to Club 40, then ultimately to Le Club, Wells said with a hint of a laugh.
By all accounts, Liz Sweeten was a very private person, preferring to keep mostly to herself, especially these last few years. She suffered the loss of a loved one just last year when a close friend died by suicide.
Wells said she and Martha McClain went to visit Sweeten shortly after the loss. As news of Sweeten’s own tragic death spread, authorities at first struggled to notify her next of kin. With funeral plans uncertain at the time, her current employer, Dirty Al’s, decided to step up and honor the woman their director of operations called family.
“She was part of our family,” Ethan Salazar said during a phone interview Tuesday.
Sweeten served as payroll administrator for the company, which employs approximately 700 people, Salazar said. “It takes us a good two days to process payroll,” Salazar said.
“The best way I can describe it is we were in the trenches,” he said, adding that he and Sweeten would work closely together every two weeks to make sure the company’s payroll was completed. He praised her work ethic, calling her detail oriented and meticulous.
He added that Dirty Al’s had volunteered to pay for Sweeten’s funeral services, if need be. “No matter what, she definitely deserved to have a dignified service,” Salazar said. As of Wednesday, police had made contact with one of Sweeten’s sisters, but no word has been released yet of upcoming funeral arrangements.
Liz Sweeten, born in Mission and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, was 61 years old.
Want the whole story? Pick up a copy of the Port Isabel-South Padre Press, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.