Shirley Temple Black and Fulfilling our Potential

February 12, 2014

5 min read


She was a lot more than a famous actress.

Shirley Temple Black, who died on Monday, February 10, 2014, at the age of 85, was a huge presence in my home. My husband and I mentioned her often, and we made sure our kids knew all about her remarkable career. Her death hit us all like a personal loss.

The reason we talked about Shirley Temple Black wasn’t only because she was a gifted actress, though of course she was: in a film career starting at age six, she appeared in 23 motion pictures.

We also didn’t talk about Shirley Temple Black merely because she was a popular child star, though her fame was unprecedented: from 1935 to 1939, she was the most popular movie star in America (Clark Gable was a distant second). She received more mail than Greta Garbo, and was photographed more often than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Shirley Temple Black was a huge inspiration to us because of what she did years later. After dropping out of show business – she never made another movie after marrying Charles Alden Black in 1950 – she carved out a second career. Far from resting on her laurels, Black forged ahead, pushing herself to grow and develop in new ways, and applying herself to new challenges.

Black became a prominent political fundraiser. In time, she made a run for congress and in 1969, she assumed political office when Richard Nixon appointed her to represent the United States in the UN’s General Assembly. Black won praise at the UN for her professionalism, speaking out about environmental issues. She wowed her critics a second time, in 1974, when she was named Ambassador to Ghana, and again acquitted herself outstandingly. Later on, Black became the White House Chief of Protocol from 1976-7, and in 1989, was appointed Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, serving there during the fall of Communism.

Black also used her fame and talents to promote personal causes, such as Multiple Sclerosis and breast cancer. When she lost a breast to cancer in 1972 – at a time when it was considered shameful to talk about – Black conducted a news conference from her hospital room, urging women not to “be afraid” of talking about the disease. Her words were a major breakthrough in shattering the taboo of breast cancer.

Shirley Temple Black wasn’t the only figure to carve out a distinguished “Act Two.” Here are some other notable people who achieved success in one field and then pushed themselves to make a difference in other areas as well.

Albert Schweitzer, the doctor and philanthropist whose work in Africa earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, began his career as a musician. In his youth, he was a famous organist. Torn between music and medicine, he gave himself until age 30 to devote his time entirely to music, and then – at the relatively advanced age of 30 – first entered medical school. He later built a major hospital complex in the city of Lambaréné in Gabon, and encouraged western doctors to travel to Africa to provide medical care there.

Vidal Sassoon, the celebrity hairdresser and founder of the international Vidal Sassoon Academies, is credited with helping to invent the mod look of the 1960s. But he had a less well-known episode in his life: in 1948, he travelled to Israel to fight in its War of Independence. “There were only 600,000 people defending the country against five armies, so everyone had something to do,” he recalled, saying his military service was the best thing he ever did in his life.

Hedy Lamarr, the Jewish actress whose exotic good looks made her a movie star in the 1930s and 1940s, is today remembered for something far removed from acting. While pursuing her acting career, Lamarr also became driven to help the American war effort. She realized that secret signals would be harder to crack if they were sent via rapidly jumping frequencies. After working on encryption plans alone, she eventually recruited Jazz pianist George Antheil to help her and together they invented an encryption device that used a piano roll to change between 88 different frequencies. Their visionary concept was eventually used by the US military, and is still in use today, forming the basis of some GPS, satellite, and cell phone technologies.

Perhaps no one so deliberately cultivated a second career as Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prizes. An arms manufacturer, Nobel’s invention of dynamite in the 1860s made him rich. When he was 55 years old, a French newspaper mistakenly reported his death, proclaiming “The Merchant of Death is Dead!” Reading this obituary changed Alfred Nobel’s life. He vowed to create a new legacy, to leave something good behind, and dedicated his considerable wealth to establish the Nobel Prizes, which celebrate human knowledge and peace, in his name.

Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Tarfon noted, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).

We are never finished with our work in this world. There is always more untapped potential. No matter how successful and busy we are, there is more we can give, there is room for an “Act Two.” The examples of these extraordinary individuals and others remind us that we can stretch ourselves and resist resting on our laurels. There is always more we can to do. And remember: it’s not your burden; it’s your pleasure!

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