Remembering Joe Ziegahn

Joe Ziegahn was always drawing.

He’d use whatever was implement was at hand — a pencil, pen, magic marker.  All he needed was a scrap of paper.  Joe would draw anything:  caricatures.  Intricate shapes.  Theater set designs.

Those set plans were probably his favorite.  He spent his career as a Westport art teacher — 1st at Coleytown and Long Lots Junior High Schools, then at Staples — but his passion was designing and building sets.  For 2 decades, his Broadway talents graced the Staples stage.

Joe Ziegahn inspires himself for his "South Pacific" set. (Photo by Kerry Long)

Joe’s mark on Staples Players’ productions was immeasurable.  He created magic; he made actors and directors better — and he inspired a generation of students to make the technical aspect of theater their careers too.

In all the years I knew Joe, I never quite figured him out.  He grew up in South Dakota, and had a million stories of life in Sioux Falls — but I’m still not sure if he loved it, tolerated it, or hated it.

The same with his Swedish and German ancestry.  He was a quiet guy, usually, but once he started talking, he went on for quite a while.  When he finished, I tried to figure out where he stood.  I seldom could.

With his sets, though, there was never any doubt.  The Kit Kat Klub was pre-war Berlin.  When the Sharks and Jets rumbled, you felt you were right there, on their turf.  His “Children of Eden” design was as miraculous as anything God himself pulled off.

Joe Ziegahn died last night, after a long battle with cancer.  Wherever he is, he is probably drawing.  And drawing up plans to make the place look more interesting.

22 responses to “Remembering Joe Ziegahn

  1. joe was a colleague, fellow art teacher, a good friend and above all a decent man. I will miss him.
    Break a leg, my friend.

    • David E Arcudi

      Can we get a tribute together at Staples?

      • A service will be held at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church on Saturday, January 16th at 2:00pm.

        It would have been nice to do something at Staples, albeit not possible on short notice. I did speak to Staples and they will be dedicating an evening of the next performance and have a page in the next Candlelight Performance Playbill(s).

        • It is March now and I have just learned of Joe’s passing.

          Joe and I were friends at Augustana. I graduated in 1969. I was with him the day he met Inge. We taught each other the art of stage craft. Even back then he was able to teach us all the common sense approach to life. We had many adventures together. He was a wonderful person and I shall miss him.

  2. Megan Clawson

    Mr. Ziegahn challenged students and helped them to grow. He helped me to create and lead and is the artist of so many of my fondest memories from that time. I am so grateful for the many years I worked with him and many, many shows we completed together.

  3. Ann Friedman

    During the many years I worked with Staples Players I spent many an hour listening to Joe’s stories. But the thing I will always remember was Joe in a grass skirt doing “Honey Bun” to my Nellie Forbush in the Faculty Follies in the early 90’s, and the huge hysterical laughter coming from the audience when he appeared on stage. Shake your grass skirt to the stars, Joe!

  4. I have fond memories of Mr. Z as an art teacher at Coleytown JHS, where he played “Hair” and Donovan records in class that probably would have scandalized our parents but inspired us. He also was the genius behind some psychedelic light shows that were highlights of early-70s school assemblies. Great guy, and incredibly creative. Sorry to hear he’s gone.

  5. Jim Honeycutt

    Talking about drawing…. Sitting in the Staples cafeteria one day, Joe designed an addition for my house. We wanted a bedroom with a cathedral ceiling but lacked the space to do it with a bath and closet. Joe thought about and drew a floor plan and made a few suggestions which allowed us to have everything we wanted and needed. And that’s how our addition got built. He was himself a great builder and designer. He helped me with many projects at Staples and I hope too he is still drawing somewhere.

  6. Gerry Kuroghlian

    Joe’s talents were multiple. He taught hundreds of students how to hammer, saw, dream and create. His haiku were inspiring as were the sets he created out of spun dreams. As a co-member of the Bald Men’s Club, Joe began every school day with zest and humor. He was a wonderful husband, father, teacher and friend. May he soar with the angels and his beloved Inge.

  7. Joe. Busy hands. Busy mind. Always engaged in life. Always willing to do whatever it took to shake and shape the imagined into reality. I called him friend, colleague and collaborator. His smile is etched in my mind and his Midwest soul in my heart. He knew how to get things done and he knew how to give others unexpected opportunities. He had “magic to do” and he did it. Safe flight my friend.

  8. David E Arcudi

    Joe Zeigahn took a fourteen year old kid who didn’t know what end was up and made me into a man. For four years he dominated my life and with the exception of my own father no other man has influenced my ENTIRE life as much. Every day. Every day I think about all that Zeigahn taught me. He was from South Dakota, I married a South Dakota girl; only fair, I was afraid to say hi to a girl until he taught me they were (then) just nervous teens too. (Then I was 30 and Shana was just another nervous 30 year old.) I loved Joe Ziegahn even more than I loved Staples Players and anyone who knew me back then new I loved Staples Players. He gave me a nickname and a title before my 15th birthday. He said I earned it. Anything I became, anything I earned, he made me, he taught me, he molded me me like the clay on the wheel in his classroom and I thank God every day for that.

  9. Joe’s sets brought a sense of professionalism to every show he was involved with. I had the pleasure of studying from/working with him at both Long Lots Jr. High and Staples in many shows. He was a true character and will be sadly missed…

  10. All of the Petersons will miss Joe…he was an amazing man. The Philosopher’s club is playing poker again! Our prayers are will Joe’s family.

  11. I enjoyed having coffee with Joe every morning for 33 years; first and Coleytown, then at Staples. We shared our love of old time country and mountain music, and rock and roll from the 50’s. Joe knew every word to every verse of every song we could ever think of. Joe had his whole self into it and that was better than the song. I’ll never forget Joe’s interpretation of “Black Denim Trousers” .

  12. Jessica (Stone) Beauchemin, SHS Class of '94

    A Staples classmate of mine forwarded the link to your blog post about Mr. Ziegahn. I am saddened to learn about his passing. Mr. Zieghan was first my teacher at Coleytown and then at Staples. He really helped helped me unleash my passion for photography. My thoughts go out to his family and the Staples family.

  13. I knew that I was blessed to have such a wonderful father. Now I know that even more as I read the messages from friends,students, and colleagus from his past. To know how he touched so many lives is priceless. The best thing about him being a teacher is that it allowed him to do what he loved most, guiding people with an education of “how to” along the way. Whether it was guiding his students,his own children or even tourists in Yellowstone National Park he always did it with creativity and love. He will be missed always. Thank you to everyone who has touched us with their stories of our father. They are the gateway to making him live on in our memories eternally. Miss you forever Daddy.See you in a Momentary Moment. Missing you already,Kristina

  14. Meghan Miller

    Mr. Zeigahn left an indelible imprint upon so many lives that it would (and should?) take an entire volume to iterate exactly what he meant to so many Staples students. Theater being the often “traditional” refuge of more-creative-than-is-good-for-them students, Mr. Ziegahn was the helpmeet of more artists-to-be than he could have ever envisaged. Firstly my art techer at Coleytown and later my set-building, acerbic-yet-kind friend at Staples, Mr. Zeigahn’s legacy is to have been mentor to so many of the “creative types” attending Staples. He has been an intellectual foster to artistic ability and a friend to innumerable teens seeking to find their personal methods of artistic expression. Memories of the Players’ haunted houses of 1996 & 1997 still scare me silly. The set for our West Side Story was superlative (as was his cool headed reactions to Josh’s mishap on that same set). I could go on, but perhaps such reminicing should wait for the book. Here’s hoping one of our more literatry alums takes on that particular project, knowing Mr. Zeigahn, it’ll be a great read.

  15. At some point during our time as yearbook advisers, Christina Richardson and I were searching the school for unused furniture for our room. We found some large tables, but they were not the right height for students to work at computers. Overnight, Joe performed a rather ordinary miracle not destined to be seen on the stage.He simply took his tools and turned those tables into just the right work surfaces that we needed. The students were so grateful that he became one of the staff members that they thanked on the pages of that year’s Stapleite.

  16. During every Players show, there was the moment when the set went up and everything became real. After 2 months of rehearsals, I remember walking on the stage and seeing the orphanage or the clam bake or Doc’s soda shop. And that moment was magical.

    Jim Zeigahn’s love of his work, his talent, and his dedication to Players will never be forgotten.

  17. Craig Matheson

    Thanks to all of you for those loving and thoughtful comments about Joe.
    As I get older (and older!) you guys are
    making me more aware of some things
    I have left unsaid, and I want to start
    telling those near and dear how important they are in my life. Thanks!

  18. Lloyd Andersen

    It was so very sad to see in Augustana’s alumni paper that Joe had passed away. He was a good friend of mine at Augustana and I remember visiting him and Inga in New Caanan years agao. I will forever have wonderful memories of him and his creativity. Looking on the web at his accomplishments does not surprise me. He continued to give so much to others

  19. Charney Gonnerman

    I am Joe’s sister, Charney. Joe was my soulmate– – we were not married, of course, but constant companions as we grew up in Sioux Falls, SD. Joey and I did everything together. We even shared the same bedroom for 18 years—with a curtain in the middle of the room with two dressers stationed back to back. I still have the twin beds that were each stationed by a window. As I think about this I know that Joey and I shared the same view out our windows. We both dreamed of adventures to come while we were modeled by very loving parents, grandparents and extended family and close friends. Of course, Joey and I were always together so we also shared the same friends. Thoughout our adult lives we pursued separate adventures, but there was not a day that I have not thought about Joey. He was my best friend and will always be apart of my very soul.
    I am grateful to have been blessed with a terrific brother who daily exhibited passiion for life, a love of humanity, and possessed superior talents which he shared with everyone. He was a creative genius. What a tribute to know that his love has impacted so many lives. Who knew that a towhead kid who chewed spitbballs and always protected his little sister would become a hero to many. Love you Joey, Your sister Charney.