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Jimmy Stewart memorial draws fans to his hometown

August 16, 1997

INDIANA, Pa. (AP) _ Church bells rang, a B-2 bomber flew overhead and hundreds of fans gathered on the town square Saturday to celebrate the life and small-town decency of the late Jimmy Stewart.

``He never forgot where he started,″ said Walt Kealy, an elementary-school principal who brought his 9-year-old daughter to the observance. ``He never got too big, as Hollywood folks tend to do.″

Stewart’s home town, a community of about 16,000 in the western Pennsylvania hills, has spent decades honoring the local boy who made good.

In 1959, Indiana renamed its airport after Stewart. In 1983, it unveiled a Stewart statue downtown and the Jimmy Stewart museum opened in 1995. At some time, it began yearly Stewart birthday parties every May and the ``It’s a Wonderful Life″ Christmas Parade, in honor of Stewart’s favorite starring role.

No close relatives of Stewart attended the service because none live in Indiana anymore, museum director Jay Rubin said. Stewart’s last close friend in the area, Bill Moorehead, died July 4, two days after Stewart died at age 89.

Memorial organizers played a recording Stewart made for his 75th birthday celebration: ``Just as part of me is always here with you, I know too that part of all of you ... is always with me ... and it’s a good feeling.″

Mayor John Varner said Stewart was a patriot, father, husband, star and even an angel, a nod to ``Wonderful Life,″ in which an angel shows him the fullness of his life. He was also a World War II bomber pilot, the reason for the bomber’s flyover.

Lena Babyak, 77, of nearby Homer City, said she saw Stewart as a symbol of her own family’s hardscrabble existence during the Depression and World War II, because he never lost touch with those times even though his family was better off than her own.

``No one word can capture him unless it were `just Jimmy,‴ Varner said.

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