It's Still a Wonderful Life for Jimmy Stewart as Indiana, Pa. Welcomes Home the Boy Who Made Good

updated 06/06/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Indiana, Pa. (pop. 16,000) is a town right out of an old Jimmy Stewart movie: prosperous, patriotic, industrious—living vindication of the faith that the America of cherished myth still exists. So somehow it seemed right in character as 3,000 Indianians gathered at the steps of the county courthouse to hear Jimmy himself gently haranguing them as if he were Mr. Smith back from Washington. But what the heck, nobody should have been surprised. Jimmy was born in Indiana 75 years ago, and now the town was turning out to honor its favorite son with a weekend-long birthday celebration.

Things got started in a style that not even Frank Capra would have tried to improve on. When State Sen. Patrick Stapleton unfurled a banner reading "Jimmy Stewart for President," the guest of honor shot back, "I can't talk fast enough to be a politician." The crowd loved it. "We're right on schedule," he observed of the welcoming ceremonies, then added in his patented stammering drawl, "Wal...I'll...uh...fix...that."

At a press conference afterward one skeptical reporter asked Stewart, who was accompanied on the visit by his wife, Gloria, 65, if, after all these years, he ever thinks about Indiana anymore. "Every day," said Stewart, a longtime resident of Beverly Hills. "The things I've learned here have stayed with me all my life. This is where I made my decisions that certain things were good—hard work, community spirit, God, church and family."

Next came a dedication ceremony for new equipment at the water company pumping station on Two Lick Creek, where Stewart hunted frogs as a boy. He was presented with a lamp, the base of which was a water meter from his father's hardware store on Philadelphia Street, Indiana's main drag then and now. Stewart worked there occasionally through boyhood and during his college years at Princeton. When his father, Alex, died in 1961 at the age of 89, the family sold the store. It was razed in 1969 as part of an urban renewal project.

On Friday evening Stewart cut a ribbon to kick off the Jimmy Stewart Film Festival at the Indiana Mall. Then there was a dinner dance for 550 people at the Omni Civic and Convention Center. Finally Jimmy and Gloria retired to the 150-year-old home of D. Hall Blair, 76, and his wife, Elinor, 69, two of the Stewarts' oldest friends who acted as their hosts for the weekend. (Jimmy no longer has relatives in Indiana.) "As a kid, he'd always fumble over his words," remembers Hall, laughing. "He'd ask, 'You gonna change that fossip?' I'd say, 'It's faucet,' and he'd say, 'Right, fossip.' "

Less amusing to Blair are the inevitable naysayers around town who want to know what Jimmy Stewart has ever done for Indiana. "They measure giving by an endowed library building that you have named after you," says Blair. "He's not like that. He's done plenty for this town, but he doesn't want it advertised."

Saturday morning began with breakfast at the Indiana fire hall. (Jimmy's father was a longtime volunteer.) There the firemen presented Jimmy with a fifth of vodka. He was delighted—his friends the Blairs keep a dry home. Then came an old-fashioned smalltown parade with baton twirlers, Boy Scouts, covered wagons and Jimmy and Gloria Stewart being driven to the reviewing stand in an open white Cadillac Eldorado. After arriving, Jimmy left his seat to share memories with Flossie Wagner Sanford, one of his grade school teachers. Some 25,000 people were on hand at the county courthouse for the dedication of a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of Stewart by California sculptor Malcolm Alexander. At noon there was a prearranged call from President Reagan, a close friend, phoning from Washington. A moment later two Air Force jets roared into view, sweeping loud and low over Philadelphia Street, making four passes in tribute to Brig. Gen. Stewart U.S.A.F. Res. (ret.). When they had gone, the crowd sang Happy Birthday and Stewart told them, "I'm proud that so many of you call me friend. God was good in bringing me back here."

On Sunday the Stewarts said their goodbyes and boarded a Falcon 10 jet loaned by a local company. As the plane streaked down the runway, members of the Jimmy Stewart Birthday Celebration Committee burst into tears. They weren't the only ones who had been overcome by emotion. At the dinner dance on Friday night, a brief film produced especially for the occasion was shown—a capsule biography of the guest of honor. "The Jimmy Stewart story is a story of old virtues," intoned the film's narrator, laying the sentimental foundation for a good cry all around. The movie ended with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "Happy birthday, dear Jimmy, happy birthday to you."

As the lights went up, Stewart and his wife were weeping openly. Jimmy stood, advanced to the microphone and said in a halting voice, "I'm very moved and it's hard for me to even talk." A moment later he added, "Gloria, forgive me, I'm gonna sing." This was Jimmy's turn to make everyone else cry. In a voice choked with emotion, he sang a song he'd made up on the spot: "Happiest birthday to me, happiest birthday to me, happiest birthday Indiana, happiest birthday to me."

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