Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories

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Sam and Isabel Ziegler

Sam and Isabel Ziegler


Honored October, 1998

Dr. Samuel R. 'Sam' and Isabel H. Ziegler

Dr. Sam Ziegler was asked to come to Española in 1946 to help bring that small city and northern New Mexico into the modern era. Then for more than half a century, he and his wife, Isabel, did more than almost anybody else to make a new day happen

Sam grew up a minister’s son in Pennsylvania and graduated from medical school as World War II was starting. After serving as an Army doctor during the war he left the military and was deciding what to do as a young married man. Some wealthy benefactors from Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu knew his father and invited Sam to come establish the first hospital in Española, which they had helped fund. He agreed, planning to stay two years.

When Sam and Isabel arrived, Rio Arriba County was one of the poorest in the United States, with some of the most deplorable medical statistics. The child mortality/ morbidity rate was second only to an impoverished county in Kentucky. Most residents spent their lives never seeing a doctor. Española had no hospital, no library and no newspaper. Spanish was by far the common language. The economy was agricultural.

When the Española Hospital opened in 1948, Sam was its chief of staff and chief of surgery. He retained both posts for many years, not leaving the surgery position until 1976. Despite his intention to start a hospital in New Mexico and then leave, “Things worked out in a magical sort of way,” he reflected in 1998. Trained as a surgeon, one of the top specialties in the medical field, he soon realized that he must become a general practitioner, treating everything from skinned knees to automobile-crash victims. But when exacting surgery was required, he was there for that work, too. He was not trained in pediatrics, so he recruited another Living Treasure, Dr. Valerie McNown, for that job.

While Sam was bringing professional levels of medicine to the Española Valley, Isabel was equally committed to her community. She raised their three children, she managed Sam’s office, she was instrumental in starting a library, she worked to beautify the city, she became the first female president of the Española Chamber of Commerce, and she was named Española’s Woman of the Year.

In 1956 Sam and Isabel became original investors in a proposed newspaper in Española, the Rio Grande Sun, which now is recognized as one of the finest weeklies in the country. Their investment of $250 was not huge, but was a significant amount at the time. They were repaid with interest, and they helped bring another important advance.

In 1966 Sam was elected to the Española City Council, where he served for the next 18 years. After he stepped down, the Rio Grande Sun said: “His campaigns were scrupulously clean while some of his detractors’ were not, but he insisted on keeping the high road. Sam Ziegler was one of the few political candidates we have seen that we could describe without qualms as honest and sincere, seeking public office to serve and not to profit.” As was Isabel, Sam was also a board member of the Santa Fe Opera.

When the Zieglers were honored as Living Treasures in 1998, praise for them flowed. “They’ve been everything I’ve never had before,” said a son-in-law. “When I married into this family I had no idea what I was marrying into. I consider them my spiritual leaders.” With tears in her eyes, a patient whose tonsils were removed and whose babies were delivered by Sam told him: “I’ll never forget you.” And when Sam died in 2000 at the age of 85, a colleague said: “He was one of the nicest doctors you’ll ever meet. He was just one of those people who was a little bit better than the rest of us.”