"That was the best job I ever had," she said of ducking the riot cops in Prague

By Alex Heigl
Updated February 11, 2014 01:45 PM
Credit: Antonin Novy/AP

Shirley Temple died Monday night in California, reviving vivid memories of a performer so beloved she was bestowed with an honorary Oscar at the age of only 6.

But overshadowing her iconic screen moments were some of her off-camera achievements – as diplomat and political activist.

Her role in life began when, as a child star, Temple emerged as an unexpected symbol of hope for a nation in despair.

“When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said of Shirley Temple.

Years after her movie career ended, the adult Temple announced her candidacy for Congress, running as a Republican to represent suburban San Francisco in 1967. She lost – many blamed her pro-Vietnam-War stance – but continued to pursue public service, leading President Nixon to appoint her to his five-member delegation to the 24th session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1969.

In later years she would also serve as ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, respectively.

“She is like a fresh breeze that has gently blown into our midst,” Saudi Arabian ambassador Jamil Baroody said in 1969. “After I heard her speak, I realized that Shirley Temple has not rested on her laurels as a child movie star. She has emerged as a sincere activist and an exponent of youth and its aspirations.”

Temple was working in Prague in 1989 when Communist rule was overthrown across Eastern Europe: “My main job [initially] was human rights, trying to keep people like future president Vaclav Havel out of jail,” she said at the time. She also accompanied Havel to Washington in 1990.

On Tuesday, former President George H.W. Bush issued the following statement: “Barbara and I mourn the loss of an American icon, Shirley Temple Black. She captured the affections of millions around the world by her endearing performances on the silver screen as a young girl, but I also admired Shirley for her selfless service to our country later in her life. In both roles, she truly lifted people up and earned not only a place in our hearts – but also our enduring respect. Barbara and I send our condolences to Shirley’s family and countless fans around the world.”

In 1998, Temple recalled for PEOPLE a day spent evading the secret police in Prague, ducking riot cops to watch anti-government rallies.

“That was the best job I ever had,” she said.

Though Temple’s political career ended during the Clinton Administration, she continued working with groups like the American Academy of Diplomacy, which she had helped to found.

And while Temple’s first career in Hollywood didn’t diminish her later political career on the world’s stage, it did color it – causing her to mention good-naturedly during a 1975 interview with the Associated Press: “Dr. [Henry] Kissinger was a former child. Jerry Ford was a former child. Even F.D.R. was a former child. I retired from the movies in 1949, and I’m still a former child.”

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