INDIANA, Pa. - When he returned home from World War II, Hollywood icon James Stewart was featured on the cover of Life magazine in front of the Indiana County courthouse.

"In New York, Stewart refused a hero's welcome," the text read. "Instead, he drove to Indiana, Pa., 50 miles from Pittsburgh. There, in his parents' comfortable red-brick house overlooking the town, he slept late, played the piano and joked with his family about the old days."

Related stories

Just plain folks. That was the Jimmy Stewart legend. It also appears to have been much of the reality.

Starting with a community church service today, Indiana will celebrate the centennial of Stewart's birth on May 20, 1908, with events titled "100 Years of America's Hometown Hero" scattered over the next week.

As Stewart slowly fades from popular culture - while still finding new audiences with the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life - Indiana's 14,000 residents cling ever more proudly to a native son who seemed to embody all that was right and good about living a small-town life.

Stewart, in the Sept. 24, 1945, issue of Life, was pictured shaking hands and signing autographs for the home folks on Philadelphia Street in the downtown business district, where his family owned a hardware store for generations.

One evening last week, at the exact spot where the rail-thin, 6-foot-3 Stewart had stood in his Army Air Forces uniform, head and shoulders above the throng, Harry Spielman, 57, was playing with his 13-month-old granddaughter, Stella.

A half-block down the brick-trimmed sidewalk, the Indiana theater was showing Made of Honor, which, despite a relatively tame PG-13 rating, would likely have made a 1945 audience blush.

"I've never heard anything bad about Jimmy Stewart," Spielman said. "He was never in the headlines for the wrong reason."

He said Stewart, in real life, seemed to have been the same role model he often portrayed on screen, most memorably as George Bailey, the dutiful son, husband and brother who sacrifices his dream of going out into the big world, but discovers in the end that he's had a wonderful life right at home.

Spielman, who has made his life as proprietor of H.B. Culpeppers, a restaurant and tavern on Philadelphia Street, said he loved to watch the old Stewart films on Turner Classic Movies. In addition to It's a Wonderful Life, his favorites are Harvey and The Spirit of St. Louis.

Though other Hollywood stars also portrayed the decent common man, said Kevin Hagopian, a film-studies scholar at Pennsylvania State University, Stewart represented "something like the American character . . . self-deprecating humor, a can-do spirit, integrity in being a person of one's word . . . generous in spirit, a person of deeds rather than words." Hagopian called Stewart "the most capable American actor."

While many other Hollywood stars spent the war years on publicity tours and bond drives, Stewart commanded a bomber squadron on 20 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. Back in California, he was on the fund-raising committee for his Presbyterian church in Brentwood. He was married to the same woman for 44 years, and when his beloved Gloria died, he soon followed - at age 89 in 1997.

Spielman, among others in Indiana, said he understood that scrutiny of celebrities during Stewart's film heyday - from the '30s well into the '70s - wasn't nearly as intense as it is today.

But even today, Spielman suspects, Stewart's clean image would hold up.

"He seems just like he was" on screen, he said.

All over town, other Indianans proudly said the same thing.

"Because of who he was, he is very easy to rally around. If you're going to follow a Hollywood idol, Jimmy Stewart is about as good as it gets because of the lifestyle he represented," said Michael J. Donnelly, publisher of the Indiana Gazette.

"We are fortunate to have a personality like Mr. Stewart to promote as a favorite son," said Timothy Harley, who administers the town's star tourist attraction: the Jimmy Stewart Museum, which features Stewart movie posters and loads of personal memorabilia.

Indiana isn't exactly the kind of place Sen. Barack Obama was talking about last month when he told California campaign donors that small-town Pennsylvanians cope with the bitterness of their economic plight by clinging to "guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."

Indiana is a little better off economically than some towns, thanks to the headquarters operations of two banks. It is also home to Indiana University of Pennsylvania and calls itself the "Christmas tree capital of the world." It is on the road to almost nowhere, sitting in an isolated pocket, not too far from the Punxsutawney of groundhog fame.

But Indiana hasn't been immune to the collapse of Pennsylvania's industrial economy.

Up until just a decade ago, Indiana County still had thousands of jobs in the soft-coal mines that run like rabbit burrows for 21/2 miles underground. Now it has almost no jobs in the mines, said Dana Henry, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

"For years," he said, "coal was king. Most everybody who is from here has some ability to say they were employed by a coal-related operation."

The town - consciously, deliberately, relentlessly - retains its optimism. How could it not with a 9-foot statue of Stewart, in his fedora, standing on the courthouse lawn?

Though not unaffected by Wal-Mart, Indiana has kept much of its downtown intact.

The Stewart hardware store has been gone since the '60s, but Luxenburg's Jewelers is still in business, as are the Michael B. shoe store and Indiana Floral. There are lots of bars and pizza joints, befitting a town where the college population is as large as the year-round population. A community theater group is putting on All the King's Men.

Even the old railroad station evokes Bedford Falls, the town of It's a Wonderful Life. It's now a restaurant.

Up on Vinegar Hill, the 1915 Dutch Colonial-style house in which Stewart grew up before leaving for Princeton University in 1928 still stands, though the Stewarts are all gone. Dolly Miller, who with her late husband bought it from the family in 1962, can look out her curtains on some days and see tour buses circling.

"The young people don't know him," she said of Stewart, "but the older people do."

The centennial events, which on Tuesday will include a historic walking tour for seniors, will resume Saturday with music performances, a picnic on the courthouse lawn, and an Air Force flyover. That evening, a $135-a-plate dinner will be held at the Indiana Country Club to raise money for the museum. Stewart's twin daughters, Kelly and Judy, and Stewart impressionist Rich Little will be present.

Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.