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Missing Shirley Temple [Commentary]

The death of Shirley Temple has me thinking of the years nipping at my heels. She and I were — almost — precise contemporaries. Shirley was born on April 23, 1928, in Santa Monica, Calif. and I came along just two days later in faraway Philadelphia. At the time of what we may call my "awareness," say at age four, she was beginning a film career that made her the most famous and adored little girl the world has ever known. In my mind's eye, she must have been born with all 56 blonde curls already sprouted. As for me, I emerged sickly with jaundice, yellowish and an ugly mop of black hair. Family legend, never denied, has my mother saying, "Take him away."

Actually, I turned out to be a fairly pretty little boy dominated by a blonde, blue-eyed older sister (by two years) who was fashioned to look like a classic Dutch maiden. Unlike Shirley, I was just an obscure member of the multitude. But like Shirley, I was in an all-female household with an absentee father. It was a similarity I knew nothing about. While Shirley's mom pushed and shoved her daughter into stardom, mine made cookies and the best beach plum jelly ever concocted.

As an outnumbered male, I was never permitted such activities. I was content to lifelong contemplation of our two-day distinction. While the sophisticated and sexy Barbie Dolls of later generations grew up, Shirley Temple dolls never did. But the real life Shirley Temple did. After giving up her film career, she became a real-life diplomat admired by presidents and colleagues.

Decades later, when I was a reporter at a State Department reception for the rightly distinguished Ambassador Shirley Temple Black (no longer a film star but a diplomat), I tried to tell her how long she had been part of my life story. She returned a withering glance that dismissed me as a loathsome gaucherie. Which I was. I slunk away, feeling sorry I had not first met her on assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana.

Shirley Temple, for me, is not gone. "The Good Ship Lollipop" sails on.

Joseph R. L. Sterne

The writer, The Sun's editorial page editor from 1972 to 1997, was born April 25, 1928, two days too late.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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