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Residents of James Stewart’s hometown react to his death

July 3, 1997

INDIANA, Pa. (AP) _ Nowhere will James Stewart’s death be mourned more publicly than in his central Pennsylvania hometown, where he is honored with a museum, an airport, a statue and the annual ``It’s a Wonderful Life″ Christmas parade.

``We lost the most favorite son of Indiana, Pennsylvania,″ said Jay Rubin, president of the James M. Stewart Museum Foundation. ``The state, the country and the world lost a true hero. Jimmy Stewart personified everything that made America great.″

With news that Stewart died Wednesday at the age of 89, the foundation immediately began planning a memorial service and the museum will begin screening Stewart’s films as part of the tribute.

Indiana, lit by lanterns on iron posts and anchored by the colonial-style courthouse on the main street, resembles Bedford Falls, Stewart’s fictional hometown in the movie, ``It’s a Wonderful Life.″

``I think it’s a great coincidence, even to the point where this building has some resemblance to the Bailey Bank Building in Bedford Falls,″ said museum director Tony Lenzi.

As Bailey’s name identified places in Bedford Falls, Stewart’s has been distributed throughout Indiana.

Plaques mark his birthplace and his red-brick boyhood home, which still stands. His life-size statue stands on the courthouse lawn.

Indiana has long nurtured an affection for its native son, who moved away as a teenager. Photographs of his visit in 1983 on his 75th birthday remain prominent on the walls of homes, offices and businesses all over town.

Stewart returned the town’s admiration. ``Almost no day goes by when Indiana and my friends there don’t come to mind,″ he said when the museum in his honor opened in 1995.

The museum is just a few blocks from the downtown corner where Stewart’s father once ran a hardware store. People still remember that Stewart’s 1940 Academy Award for best actor in ``The Philadelphia Story″ was displayed for many years in the store’s front window.

Frank Moore, a retired state legislator whose idea to erect the statue of Stewart in 1983 sparked other public displays, said Stewart remained close to his roots.

``When he came home here, we wanted to treat him as someone special. But he wanted to be treated as a regular guy,″ Moore said.

Moore said he once tried to protect Stewart from mobs of fans at the Indiana County fairgrounds.

``He would always say, `No, no, I want to touch them.′ And that was his motto. He didn’t want anyone to feel he was snubbing them,″ Moore said.

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