This past Saturday July 2nd marked the fourteenth anniversary of the death of my favorite actor Jimmy Stewart. Over the span of his 89 years Stewart created an enduring movie legacy that is matched by few. But being one of Hollywood’s most revered film stars wasn’t all there was to the legend. Stewart was also a devoted husband and father, a humanitarian, a patriot, and a bona fide war hero. Here are a few things about him you may not have known.
James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania and like my family his had come to that part of the state as pioneer settlers. His father was a third generation merchant and for many years operated The J.M. Stewart & Co. hardware store founded there in 1848. In addition to his deep-rooted family values Stewart had deep roots in military tradition. Both his grandfathers fought in the Civil War while his father served in two wars, the Spanish-American, as well as World War I. The Stewarts had a close-knit highly principled family life growing up. Music and reading were focal points of the family’s time together. They attended the Calvary Presbyterian Church of Indiana where his parents sang in the choir and the family held hands and said grace at every meal. Jimmy’s happy childhood in small-town America left a lasting impression.
Stewart was a good student and would graduate from Princeton University. Interested in aviation from the time he was a child he earned his pilot’s license in 1935 and bought his first airplane. In the years ahead Jimmy would often fly cross-country to see his parents in Pennsylvania. With the outbreak of World War II at age 32, he enlisted in the Army and reported for duty as Private James Stewart and was assigned to the Army Air Corps at Moffett Field near San Francisco. Among the prerequisites to qualify for pilot wings was an additional 100 flying hours so Stewart bought them at his own expense at a nearby civilian field.
Eventually he would serve as a flight instructor for both the B-17 “Flying Fortress” and B-24″ Liberator.” Much to his dismay Stewart stayed in the states for nearly two years, serving as a Captain and Operations Officer for a squadron, that was part of a Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force. Finally commanding officers gave-in to his request and sent him overseas and in March of 1944 Jimmy was transferred to the 453rd Bombardment Group at Old Buckenham, England. There he flew bombing missions in B-24’s for the remainder of the war. Stewart’s war record included 20 combat missions as command pilot, wing commander or squadron commander. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters (that means he received it three times). In addition he received The Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters (four times), and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. At the end of the war he had risen to the rank of Colonel and afterwards remained with the Air Force Reserves and became a Brigadier General in 1959.
Stewart was a staunch supporter of the Republican party and a “hawk” on the Vietnam War, even after his son Ron, while serving as a Marine Corps Lieutenant, was killed in action there at the age of 24. Actor Henry Fonda was one of Jimmy’s best friends despite the two having far differing political opinions. An argument over politics once brought the two roommates to a fist fight, but they maintained their friendship by never discussing the subject again. Fonda and Stewart were Hollywood playboys but Jimmy settled down at age 41 and married his wife Gloria. The two remained together for 45 years until her death in 1994.
A devout Presbyterian his entire life Stewart starred in the 1980 television special, “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.” In the movie he’s seen directing The Mormon Tabernacle Choir which he said was the most unique opportunity of his storied career. In speaking of the program he said he hoped it would help promote the true meaning of the holiday in remembering the birth of Christ. While a student at BYU, and prior to his donating his films, papers, scrapbooks and home movies to the school’s Motion Picture Archives, I had the privilege of meeting him. It was sudden, unexpected and all-too brief. But of course it was memorable, especially as it occurred mostly in private and away from the distraction of a crowd.
Later as a television reporter in Bend, Oregon I interviewed film actress Kim Novak. She was visiting the nearby Sunriver Resort for a gathering unrelated to her career as another Hollywood legend. Novak is best known for her appearance with Stewart in the now classic Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo. After the on-camera interview was finished I mentioned in passing my high regard and admiration for Stewart and Novak opened up and with a huge, beaming smile said, “Jimmy was the nicest human being I ever knew, you have chosen wisely.”
Hollywood always billed his films with the name “James Stewart”, but to his family, friends and fans around the world it was always “Jimmy”. One of Stewart’s lesser-known talents was his homespun poetry. While on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson he once read a poem he’d written about his dog “Beau.” I remember it well and by the time he had finished, Carson’s eyes, along with mine, and no doubt many of the audience were welling with tears. It was a direct hit to the heart!
That’s what I liked about Jimmy Stewart. Beyond his virtue, his dignity, his small-town charm and way of plain speaking, whenever I watched him I knew I was in-store for a treasured experience. Whether it resulted in laughter or tears, and often a combination of the two, I knew he would stir my emotions. Those that know me best, will tell you I’m a sentimental guy. Yes, I’m emotionally weak, and yes I’ve been known to cry at supermarket grand-openings. I guess in many ways Jimmy was the father I wish I’d had. And so it is, with a tear in my eye and an ache in my heart, along with the thought of Jimmy long gone — and the world a worse place without him — I can’t help but say, “I love you Jimmy and I miss you. Thanks for the memories.”
Jimmy Reads his Poem about “Beau”