BILLINGS — James 'Ziggy' Ziegler, a pillar of the Billings community for over 40 years as a former Yellowstone County Commissioner, restauranteur and parolee advocate, died Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 89.
People could often find Ziegler at Stella's, the downtown bakery and restaurant named after his beloved wife of 66 years. Ziggy and Stella owned and operated the restaurant for over 40 years, before selling it in 2019 to Steve Wahrlich, owner and operator of the neighboring Best Western ClockTower Inn.
That same year, the couple received the Billings Chamber of Commerce's Legacy Award, which recognizes individuals who consistently demonstrate success in improving the business and economic climate, in addition to the quality of life for residents of Billings, over their lifetime.
"We love Billings," Stella said upon receiving the award. 'We moved here 45 years ago from California - best thing we ever did. Billings has been so good to us."
"We just do what we do because that's who we are, and I'm just amazed at this honor," Ziggy added. "I am truly humbled."
Ziegler's biggest passion was giving paroled criminals a second chance. His father was murdered by two armed robbers in the 1970s, and Ziegler channeled his anger by visiting and speaking to inmates at the Montana State Prison for the majority of the rest of his life.
Over the years, he and Stella hired hundreds of ex-cons to work at Stella's. Their most famous employee was convicted murderer Barry Beach. Beach was sentenced to life in prison for the 1979 killing of Kimberly Bees in Poplar. He maintained his innocence throughout his time in the Montana State Prison and was eventually released after 28 years largely based on Ziegler's promise of a job and a new life for Beach in Billings.
"They worked and gave people tons of second chances and we still try to carry that on, so lasting impressions. I think Zig was a true testament of being hospitable and giving back to the community," said Blake Wahrlich, the current general manager of Stella's.
Ziegler's penchant for service extended into the local government as well. He was elected a Yellowstone County Commissioner in 1990 and held the position for 12 years. He lost his seat to current County Commissioner John Ostlund, who considered Ziegler a friend to the end of his life.
Ziegler leaves behind Stella, five children and an indelible mark on the Magic City.
-Dianne Parker contributed to this story.