For Valentine’s Day 2017, Billings Gazette reporter Susan Olp profiled some local lifelong loves. And the story of the Ziegler’s 60th wedding anniversary is the story of Stella’s:
On a weekday afternoon, Ziggy and Stella Ziegler sit in a booth at the downtown Billings restaurant they own, Stella’s Kitchen & Bakery. James “Ziggy” Ziegler and Stella Marapese married Jan. 19, 1957, in Los Angeles.
But they’ve known each other since Ziggy was in eighth grade at St. Michael’s Catholic School and Stella was in third grade. Her family had just moved from Rochester, New York.
“So for one year we went to the same grammar school, but then he went to high school with my brother, and we still went to the same church,” Stella said. “Our folks knew each other.”
Their mothers attended the same Bible study. And their fathers both served as ushers at the Catholic church they attended.
After Ziggy graduated from high school, he went to college for a year and then dropped out. He got drafted in the Army in 1953, spent 14 months in Korea during the war and two years in the military altogether.
In the meantime, Stella was growing up, and by the time Ziggy returned, she was 15. When his family came over for dinner to her family’s house, she was a junior in high school — one year ahead in school.
When Stella, then a senior, needed a date for a dance at her all-girl’s high school, she called Ziggy.
“He said he would take me, and that was the beginning of our friendship,” Stella said.
Ziggy was going to college on the GI bill and working part time at the post office. Every day he would pick Stella up and take her to 6:30 a.m. Mass before dropping her off at her high school.
Even though there was a gap in their ages, it never bothered Ziggy.
“She was very mature for her age, and I really respected that,” he said.
They married when he was 23 and she was a few months shy of her 18th birthday. Ziggy worked as an insurance adjuster, and Stella was a homemaker.
They had their first child a year and a half after they were married “and then I had one a year, basically,” Stella said.
Altogether they had five children, two girls and three boys. Another infant son, John, died soon after he was born.
“He’s our angel,” Ziggy said.
The family took a cross-country trip and stayed at KOA campgrounds along the way. When a KOA came up for sale in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1971, the couple bought it.
They sold that campground and bought one in Billings in 1974.
“We were here three weeks and the campground went two feet under water, when the Yellowstone River flooded,” Ziggy said. “It was a muddy mess.”
They sold the campground in 1977, and in 1978 they opened the very first Great Harvest Bread franchise at the corner of North 25th Street and Third Avenue North, Stella said.
“Somebody brought us a loaf of whole-wheat bread and it was the best I ever had,” she said. “I asked ‘where did you get it?’ and they said a little bakery in Great Falls and (the owner) wanted to sell franchises.”
The bakery was a success, but when the couple opened a restaurant in 1980, it closed a year later. They lost their home in the process.
“It was very difficult,” Stella said. “Those are the kind of times you find out what kind of couple you are. We stuck together, kept together and kept working.”
They opened another restaurant in 1985 on North 29th Street, eventually moving it and the bakery to its present location. It continues to thrive, with 40 employees, though the couple is gradually turning over the day-to-day responsibility to a general manager.
Over the years, Ziggy was elected as Yellowstone County auditor for one four-year term, and then as a county commissioner for another 12 years. He has also spent 39 years traveling to the Montana Men’s Prison in Deer Lodge to minister to inmates.
“Stella’s always been my best friend, my best supporter, and she’s encouraged me to do things I didn’t think I could do,” he said.
Both remain active in the Billings community, sitting on boards and active in various aspects of the Catholic Church.
The couple’s faith remains a mainstay of their life together. They have their morning tea, do a Scripture reading and reflect on the day ahead.
They enjoy time with their family, which now includes 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Like all families, Stella said, theirs have had their ups and downs.
The family had a dinner reception at a restaurant to mark the couple’s anniversary. Ziggy and Stella are also planning a cruise with another couple through the Panama Canal.
Stella wakes up sometimes and thinks about how quickly 60 years have gone by. It’s been a full and active life, something she’s grateful for.
“We both feel blessed that we’re still healthy and we can work and be involved in the business,” she said. “We appreciate each day because you really don’t know what tomorrow will hold.”