A Gift That Keeps On Giving

by Jim Toes, STA President & CEO

Imagine receiving the most prestigious award in your field of work only to then step away from your career to risk your life in service to your country. Imagine still that the recognition was an Academy Award for Best Actor in a critically acclaimed film and the service to your country was joining the Army Air Corps as a private in the early days of World War II. Hard to imagine anyone would do something like this. But someone did and he is truly an American treasure who, with every holiday season, inspires us to be better versions of ourselves as we look forward to the new year.

Hollywood’s legendary actor Jimmy Stewart is well known for his role as the affable George Bailey in the 1949 holiday classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. We are all familiar with the plot about how George gave up his dreams in order to help others in his community, and whose thoughts of suicide on Christmas Eve brought about the intervention of his guardian angel who showed George all the lives he touched and what the world would be like if he had not existed.

What few know, however, is that prior to filming It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart had not acted in almost a decade. His most previous performance was in the 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story, for which he received an Academy Award for Best Actor. Following in his family’s footsteps of military service, Jimmy Stewart placed his acting career on hold in order to pursue a more noble path.

After initially rejected for being underweight, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in February 1941 and was inducted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Corp one month later. He served with distinction and completed 20 combat missions as a B-24 Liberator pilot, including missions over Germany and occupied Europe. His service and bravery were highly regarded, earning him several medals including two Distinguished Flying Crosses. Jimmy Stewart returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1945 with the rank of colonel.

While Jimmy Stewart seldom discussed how his military service influenced his acting, his portrayal of the character George Bailey appears so natural that it is impossible to separate the two.

Undoubtedly, Stewart’s military service deepened his sense of duty and sacrifice. These values are reflected in George Bailey, who continually puts the needs of his family and community before his own. His understanding of service and sacrifice likely lent authenticity to George Bailey’s selfless and principled nature.

Jimmy Stewart’s wartime experience also likely imbued him with a sense of resilience and hope in the face of adversity. These qualities are central themes in It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey confronts hardships but ultimately finds hope and purpose.

In essence, Jimmy Stewart’s military service likely infused his portrayal of George Bailey with a profound sense of duty, sacrifice, resilience and other honorable characteristics. We are reminded of these invaluable life character traits every holiday season when we most deeply appreciate the joy of family and friends, while reflecting on the past and looking forward to a new year with great and promising possibilities. Jimmy Stewart is truly a gift that keeps on giving. 

On behalf of the STA Board of Governors and all Affiliates, we wish you and your families a safe, healthy and happy New Year!