By Monica Friess
Special to HAKOL
“When I was a kid,” Mace Bugen once said, “I’d ask myself, ‘Why is that guy on the football team? Why can’t I be on the team? Why didn’t God give me the height so I could be the hero?’ Then at some point I figured it out: I gotta do something special to let ‘em know I’m me.”
An achondroplastic dwarf who stood 43 inches tall, Moishe “Mace” Bugen figured out early in life how to make the world aware of his formidable presence. In her new book, “The Little Gate Crasher,” his great-niece Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer tells his story and presents an amazing array of the photos Bugen had taken of himself with many of the biggest celebrities of his day. Perhaps the first “photobomber,” Bugen managed to pose for photos with such notables as Muhammad Ali, Mickey Rooney, Dr. Jonas Salk, Jane Russell, Joe DiMaggio, Jack Benny, Isaac Stern and so many more.
The columnist Walter Winchell gave Bugen his nickname (and the book its title) in 1955, writing, “The dwarf who crashes the gate at most major sports events (past the cops and attendants) is ‘Mace’ Bugen …”
Bugen owned and ran a real estate and insurance agency in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, lived in Easton and was something of a local celebrity himself. A community leader, he was a regular at B’nai Abraham Synagogue in Easton and active member in its tallis and tefillin club, and he attended all major Jewish events in the Lehigh Valley. Easton resident Danny Cohen remembers Bugen as “an original – truly a unique individual who embraced his challenges with courage, a love for life, and, above all, a huge amount of chutzpah! No one who met him will ever forget him (or his Jeep).”
Kaplan-Mayer explains a bit about his Jeep: “There was limited accessibility and no accommodations for people like Mace in his day,” she says. “He lived in a time when it was common to refer to people with disabilities with derogatory names, but Mace never let society’s prejudices or his own physical limitations stop him.” He had a Jeep specially fitted for him. And when he couldn’t find a spot close to Madison Square Garden, he just parked his Jeep on the curb in front of the arena.
Kaplan-Mayer has worked in the field of special needs for 20 years and is currently the director of Whole Community Inclusion, a division of Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia, which engages people with special needs and their families and supports their ability to access a range of Jewish educational experiences from early childhood through the transition to adulthood.
The author will speak about her book at Congregation Brith Sholom on Feb. 25, at 5 p.m. It is presented as part of national and international programming in recognition of February as Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).
“What’s especially meaningful for me about this event,” says Kaplan-Mayer, “is that my family is from here.” Her mother, Lynn Auerbach-Kaplan, lived in Easton, and her maternal grandmother, Minerva Auerbach, taught at Easton High School.
The event is presented by Jewish Family Service of the Lehigh Valley, Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, the Jewish Community Center of the Lehigh Valley and Congregation Brith Sholom.
Dinner and Discussion with author Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer: Sunday, Feb. 25, 5 p.m., at Congregation Brith Sholom, 1190 Macada Rd., Bethlehem. Cost: $18 per person / $36 per family. Reservations may be made at jewishlehighvalley.org or by calling JFLV at 610-821-5500. RSVP by Feb. 15.