For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of re-acquainting myself with an important figure from my childhood from an adult perspective. My great-uncle Mace Bugen used to take my siblings and me on fun outings in his open-air Jeep to the circus or to get ice cream; he always had gum in his pockets for us—and he also recorded interviews with us on his portable cassette player.
My great-uncle was a successful self-made businessman, tireless worker for Jewish charities, and a sort of celebrity in his hometown of Easton, PA. He also happened to be 43 inches tall, had a hump on his back, and walked with a cane in his later years as his spine continued deteriorate.
While working on my memoir of Mace’s amazing life, “The Little Gate Crasher,” I had the chance to interview friends and relatives who knew Mace well, and had insights into how he used his powerful spirit to face adversity: Not only did he successfully navigate a world that was quite literally often out of his reach, but he also faced society’s prejudices towards people with dwarfism by brushing off stares and jeers, and instead, focused on his personal goals.
What I discovered while getting to know Mace again as an adult is someone whose strength will continue to teach and guide me. Here are a few of the ongoing lessons that I take away from Mace’s example:
1. Let your spirit shine. Mace had chutzpah in the best possible way. He grew up being started at, called names, and was always made aware of being “different.” He could have withdrawn and shied away from being part of community in response… But instead, he showed up and celebrated every simcha, became a fixture at community events, and even engineered photos of himself with the biggest celebrities and athletes of his time.
2. Good humor helps every situation. Mace had the biggest smile and his humor put people at ease. Often when children would ask him innocently why he was so small, he’d reply, with a wink to the parents, “I didn’t drink my milk.” Mace’s good humor helped him diffuse tension in many situations and put others at ease.
3. Be a mensch. Mace was a determined and focused businessman who started his own real estate and insurance agency, but he always made time to help others. He was known for driving around town in his Jeep named “Hadassah,” and picking up items for rummage sales that my great-grandmother staged to support new immigrants to Israel. He spent every Saturday afternoon visiting residents at a local nursing home and had a regular schedule of stopping by to cheer up “shut-ins.” He was grateful for his life and made sure to think of others less fortunate than he was.
4. Notes and cards make people feel important. Mace was a great correspondent. In an era before email, Mace kept stacks of postcards that he used to write to cousins, friends, nieces, and nephews across the country when he had an item of interest to share with them. Many people have saved these Mace cards! Mace’s communication reminds me how special it is to send and receive handwritten notes.
5. Yell back to the TV. One of my favorite Mace memories from my childhood was watching TV together. Whether it was a police drama or ”The Love Boat,” Mace called out his opinion in English or Yiddish. Who said you have to sit back quietly and watch the drama without being part of the action? Not Mace Bugen.
Mace engaged with life in every way—and as people are discovering his life story through “The Little Gate Crasher,” his larger than life spirit continues to live on.