Paul  Kengor

I learned only yesterday that Shirley Temple, the iconic child actress, died earlier this week at age 85. Reports on her death were easy to miss. I went through my usual scan of various websites and saw nothing. I fortunately caught a buried “Shirley Temple, R.I.P.” by a writer at a political website.

I was dismayed by the sparse reaction to the loss of this woman who lived a great American life. Had Shirley Temple died 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, the country would have stopped. People everywhere would have paused to give Temple her due. It would have been the lead in every newspaper.

But not today. Our culture is too obsessed with Miley Cyrus and gay marriage to give proper recognition to a woman who was one of the most acclaimed, respected, and even cherished Americans, a household name to children and adults alike.

When I caught the news of Temple’s death, I groaned. I braced myself to tell my two young daughters. They’ve watched Shirley Temple movies for years. To them, she’s a contemporary, another innocent little girl. When I informed my 11-year-old daughter, she frowned and said, “Oh, that’s terrible.” She was about to cry when I quickly explained that Shirley was 85 and had lived an extraordinary life. There was no reason to be sad.

For years, as my daughters and wife and I watched Temple’s old movies, particularly on the superb Turner Classic Movies channel, we’d check her date of birth, do the math, and realize that Shirley probably would be with us a while longer. That while has finally closed.

I never met Shirley Temple, but a good friend of mine who died in August knew her. Bill Clark, who was Ronald Reagan’s close friend and crucial adviser in taking down the Soviet Union, met Temple at the height of her popularity, when both were children.

Clark’s grandfather was a literal sheriff, cowboy, and California trailblazer, known throughout the Los Angeles area. Some Hollywood publicity folks contacted the senior Clark around 1936 for a local promotion. The promotion featured four-year-old little Bill pinning a badge on Shirley Temple’s vest as she was “officially” deputized by Marshal Clark.