Friday, June 8, 2012

Jimmy Stewart

Recently, my husband indulged me with a road trip of my choice. Since I have such a fascination with history, I chose to tour some museums. One of the places we visited was the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Upon reaching our destination which is also Stewart’s boyhood town, we parked the car and put money in the meter. Across the street lay the museum. We walked to the street corner and waited for the warning hand to disappear from the opposite crossing sign. I laughed as a familiar deep voice with a slow drawl spoke to us from the crossing pole to our right. Jimmy Stewart’s voice told us when to walk!

We reached the museum, paid our admission, and began to observe the many exhibits about Jimmy Stewart. I learned that he starred in 81 movies from 1935 to his last movie released in 1991. In that one, he performed the voice of Wylie Burp, the sheriff in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. Our children loved that animated cartoon movie when they were small. His best known movie is It’s a Wonderful Life in which an angel prevents George Bailey (Stewart) from taking his life by showing him how his influence had touched lives and helped his community. The Jimmy Stewart Museum illustrates the vastness of this actor’s abilities from accordion player to airplane pilot to skilled actor.

Being an educator, I am especially interested in the details of people’s lives which might have helped them achieve greatness: their parents, their education, and other outside influences.

Jimmy’s dad appears to have been a hard working man. He owned a family hardware business that was so successful that they rebuilt numerous times after fire destroyed the place. Second of all, his parents seemed to encourage Jimmy’s interests. Among other things, he gave magic shows, sketched pictures, played the accordion, built crystal radio sets, and performed his own handwritten plays with his siblings.

Once he saved up his money and took a ride in an airplane owned by one of the “barnstormers” traveling the United States at that time. In the 1920’s, pilots called “barnstormers” flew into an area, landed in a farmer’s field, and stayed for the day to charge the local residents for a ride in their airplanes.

Even though Jimmy did not fulfill his dad’s expectation of having a son join him in the hardware business, his dad still supported his choices. In the hardware store window, Jimmy’s dad kept a display of Jimmy’s career. When Jimmy won an Academy Award, given for excellence in film making, his dad requested the trophy to display in his store.
Jimmy sent it home to him. His dad sat it right beside the cash register. 

Jimmy’s education interested me because he didn’t go to a typical public elementary school. Indiana was and still remains a college town. Indiana Normal School now Indiana University ran a model school so that their students could practice teaching. The school would have used the most current theories of education of the time. When I was in teaching training, I learned that anything new taught in college takes ten years to filter into the public schools. From first to ninth grade, Jimmy went to a school probably using the best methods available.

After ninth grade, Jimmy Stewart attended Mercerburg Academy Prep School where he took part in many activities. In the last stage of his formal education, he earned a degree in architecture from Princeton.

Besides contributing to his formal education, the local community played a part in his life. A neighborhood barber gave him accordion lessons. That accordion was a key in his becoming a performer. Jimmy belonged to a local Boy Scouts of America troop. He would have camped, hiked, and earned merit badges under the tutorage of people with a love of children. This probably contributed to the fine character that he developed. Evidence of Jimmy’s appreciation for his community’s part in his childhood appeared when the plans began for a museum in his honor. He requested that it be a hometown effort not one of Hollywood making.

So what made Jimmy Stewart achieve such greatness? First of all, he had God-given talent. Second, His parents encouraged his interests and supported him even when they didn’t agree with his choices. Third, he received a fine education and, fourth, his community influenced him in a positive way. The total effect allowed him to reach a potential that I am sure none of them expected. Jimmy Stewart was a good person who entertained multitudes for years and through his legacy of film making is still providing good clean entertainment today.

By the way, I am indebted to one of those Indiana, Pennsylvania, hometown people, Joy Behr, who provided such wonderful hospitality during my visit to the museum. I doubt if there is another museum worker in the world as thoughtful as she. After I told her that I was a writer, she told me stories, brought me extra hand-outs, and found my husband a comfy place to watch a Jimmy Stewart movie so that I could take my time perusing the museum. To top it all off, she set up a biographical video for me to watch and took our picture before we left. Thank you, Joy Behr.