Home > Uncategorized > In accordance with his wish, Donald Vitkus is laid to rest in cemetery of the former Belchertown State School

In accordance with his wish, Donald Vitkus is laid to rest in cemetery of the former Belchertown State School

“We are powerless to consecrate this ground. The people laid to rest here have all consecrated it.”

Those were the words of Donald Vitkus’s grandson, William, as Donald’s ashes were interred Saturday following a memorial service at the Warner Pine Grove Memorial Cemetery for residents of the former Belchertown State School.

It was Donald’s wish that he be buried along with his “brothers and sisters” in the “Turkey Hill” cemetery.

Beneath the tall pines that protectively ring the small cemetery enclosure, some 70 people gathered for the memorial service in which family, friends, and fellow advocates for the developmentally disabled spoke with eloquence about the impact Vitkus had on their lives.

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Members of Donald Vitkus’s family at Saturday’s memorial service. His wife, Patricia, is in the center.

Vitkus, who died of a brain tumor in January at the age of 74, lived a life that took him from the notorious state school to a tour of duty in Vietnam, a first marriage that failed because he was unable to relate emotionally to his wife and children, and a later reconnection with his son, David, and other members of his family.

Vitkus was married in 1995 to his second wife, Patricia, who was in attendance at Saturday’s ceremony. In his later years, he became a passionate advocate for the developmentally disabled.

At the age of six, Vitkus was sent to Belchertown by foster parents, and remained there until he was “paroled” at the age of 17. The institution, which was closed in 1992, was one of many such facilities in Massachusetts that became the targets of a federal class-action lawsuit, Ricci v. Okin, which brought about significant upgrades in care and services in facilities throughout the state.

At Saturday’s memorial service, the speakers included Vitkus’s son, David, granddaughter, Helena, and grandson, William. Among the others who spoke were Department of Developmental Services Commissioner Jane Ryder, and Edward Orzechowski, who became a close friend of Vitkus’s while writing You’ll Like it Here, a book about Vitkus’s life at Belchertown and afterward, as Vitkus struggled to overcome the scars left from his experience at the institution.

In March of this year, Vitkus was posthumously given the Benjamin Ricci Commemorative Award at an annual Statehouse award ceremony, which recognizes the accomplishments of individuals served by DDS and the dedication of caregivers and advocates.

In 2005, Vitkus received an associate degree in human services from Holyoke Community College. It was there that he organized a speaking event that same year for Ben Ricci, the original plaintiff in Ricci v. Okin and the author of Crimes Against Humanity, a landmark book about Belchertown and the filing of the lawsuit.

Orzechowski, who attended the 2005 speaking event, said Vitkus approached him there, and asked him to write a book about his experience at Belchertown. At Saturday’s ceremony, Orzechowski said Vitkus had later quipped that he had organized the speaking event for Ben Ricci in order to score “brownie points”  to boost his G.P.A. at the community college.

Ryder said she has provided a copy of Orzechowski’s book to every member of the DDS senior management. “We need to always be vigilant about the services and staff and to question the experts,” Ryder said. “We need to listen to the individuals and their families.”

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Friends and family at Saturday’s memorial service for Donald Vitkus

Orzechowski stood silently before speaking and then recounted several anecdotes about Vitkus, some of which are in Orzechowski’s book, and others that occurred when Vitkus and Orzechowski went on speaking and book signing tours together after You’ll Like it Here was published in 2016.

Orzechowski recalled how Vitkus had always resisted authority, even biting off part of an attendant’s finger at Belchertown after the attendant had tried to stuff anti-psychotic medications down his throat. Vitkus spent 34 days in solitary confinement as a result.

Orzechowski also recounted how Vitkus had escaped twice from Belchertown, and was picked up each time by the same police officer, who took him for ice cream the second time before returning him to the facility.

William Vitkus, who, like Helena, recalled Donald as a loving grandfather, said the question had “gnawed” at him as to why he had asked to be buried in a cemetery for residents of an institution that was an “ugly place with bad memories.”

“He (Donald) had spent his whole life trying to prove he never belonged (at Belchertown),” William said.  “Why should the state school now get to keep him?”

William said that he finally came to realize that it wasn’t the institution, but the residents there with whom Donald felt a life-long kinship, and that he felt he was “no different than the people buried here. They were his family.

“We’re here,” William added, “to help him (Donald) fulfill his last act of advocacy — a last stick in the eye to all who told him and his brothers and sisters that they would amount to nothing.

“There is no more sacred spot for my grandfather to rest,” William continued. “We are powerless to consecrate this ground. The people laid to rest here have all consecrated it.”

Donald Vitkus’s son, David , a former Northampton police officer, talked about how Vitkus had initially been unable to relate to his family because of the emotional scars from his childhood. “He was lacking in the nurturing we all got,” David Vitkus said. “He was aloof and couldn’t express his feelings.”

But David noted that Vitkus later overcame that inability to relate, and reconnected with him. The father and son then embarked on a literal search for Donald’s past, which took them to the Belchertown institution, which was then in the final process in the early 1990s of closing.

David described his father as a humble man who “was always keenly aware of the opportunities he received that others simply didn’t….I think he would want me to say one last thank you for being there for him. So thank you very much.”

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  1. Ed
    June 26, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    A most fitting tribute to Donald and all former residents, living and dead, of what was once Belchertown State School. We cannot forget.

  2. June 27, 2018 at 9:56 am

    Thank you, Ed, for fulfilling Donald’s request to help him find meaning in his experience, and to help all of us understand it.

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