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Donald Vitkus, inspirational survivor of the Belchertown State School, dies at 74

January 26, 2018 9 comments

Donald Vitkus, a survivor of the former Belchertown State School, whose life became an inspiration to many in the disabled community, died Wednesday of complications from a brain tumor.

Vitkus was the subject of a book published in 2016 by Ed Orzechowski, vice president of COFAR and a founding member of the Advocacy Network, an organization for families and persons with developmental disabilities in western Massachusetts.

Orzechowski’s book, “You’ll like it here,” chronicled Vitkus’s childhood at Belchertown in the 1950s, and his life afterwards in which he dealt with lasting emotional effects of his experiences in the institution. After an initial failed marriage and a literal search with his son for his past among Belchertown records, he found his calling in recent years as an advocate for persons with developmental disabilities.

Vitkus’s wife, Patricia, said there will be a memorial service in Massachusetts at a later date.

Vitkus was sent by a foster family to Belchertown in 1949, when he was six years old.  He had a tested IQ of 41 and was labeled “a moron” in the state school records, according to Orzechowski’s book.  In fact, that assessment of Vitkus cognitive ability and similar assessments of many of his peers at Belchertown proved to be wrong. He and many of his fellow “inmates” had to use their wits to survive there.

Donald Vitkus photo4

Donald Vitkus speaking at a recent event in his role as an advocate for people with developmental disabilities

In his book, Orzechowski described how Vitkus first approached him in 2005 following a book signing for “Crimes Against Humanity,” a detailed account by the late Benjamin Ricci of conditions at Belchertown and the other institutions prior to the 1970s. Ricci launched the class action lawsuit, Ricci v. Okin, in that decade that resulted in major improvements  in the care and conditions in the facilities.

In a post yesterday on Facebook, Orzechowski said that when he first met Vitkus at that book signing, Vitkus was then a 62-year-old student at Holyoke Community College, earning a degree in human services.

Vitkus told Orzechowski that he had grown up at Belchertown and was looking for someone to help him write his story. “I had no idea how important this man would become in my life,” Orzechowski wrote yesterday. 

“You’ll like it here” describes what were at the time horrifying conditions at Belchertown, and the treatment of the residents as prison inmates who could be abused with impunity.

When Vitkus refused at one point to take antipsychotic medication that was then routinely given to everyone, an attendant tried to jam the pills down his throat.  Vitkus bit off the attendant’s finger and was placed in solitary confinement for 34 days as punishment.  He noted to Orzechowski that the medication was used to keep the residents docile.

Orzechowski also described how the introduction of a television set, donated by a parents’ group,  opened Vitkus’s mind to the outside world, but also raised troubling questions for him, particularly about things such as the civil rights struggles of the late 1950s. From the book:

“Why were colored people treated like that?” he wondered.  “Why was anyone treated like that? Why did places like Little Rock, Montgomery, and Belchertown exist? Where was justice?”

In 1960, Vitkus was “paroled” from Belchertown at the age of 17, after graduating from the sixth grade at the school. He was sent to a program run by the Catholic Church called Brightside. Later, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Vietnam where he lost a buddy who was killed in a firefight.

After his return from Vietnam, Vitkus got married to a young woman whom he’d met while he was a resident at Brightside. He also took night classes at a local high school and received a high school diploma.

But while Vitkus and his wife had two children, he found that he was incapable of expressing affection for her or for his children.  Eventually, his wife filed for divorce.

Vitkus  later reconnected with his son, Dave, who became a police officer in Northampton, and the two of them went on an exhaustive hunt together for information about Vitkus’s past.  That search took them to Belchertown, which was then in the final process in the early 1990s of closing.

At the age of 52, Vitkus remarried, earned an associate degree in human services at Holyoke Community College, and began a new career in caregiving to people with developmental disabilities.

Orzechowski offered some remembrances of his experiences with Vitkus in just the past year during a series of book signing events in western Massachusetts. One of those events was at Whole Children, an agency established in Hadley by mothers of developmentally disabled kids.

As Orzechowski described it:

It was a terrible stormy night last January—i thought it might be cancelled—but a sizeable crowd still showed. I saw one woman in the audience sitting with her son, probably middle school age. She later told me that her son is seldom communicative, but on the way home in the car he couldn’t stop talking about Donald and that he wanted to grow up to be like him, speaking out and advocating.

 At another event at a bookstore in Westfield, Orzechowski said:
I had watched a woman in the audience, clearly moved. When Donald called for questions following our presentation, he asked, “What brought you here, ma’am?” — a question he often asked. The woman was so emotional she couldn’t speak. There was a long silence, and Donald went to her and embraced her. This from a man who at one time couldn’t stand to be hugged because it reminded him of abuse and restraints.
At a coffee shop:
Donald and I had dropped off some books to be sold at Gail’s (my wife) hairdresser’s shop. Donald and I went next door for coffee, and were at a table talking. A woman (Darlene) who had been sitting near us (she was wearing an apron, on break) said she couldn’t help overhearing, and introduced herself. She had also been a patient at Belchertown as a child. She and Donald started reminiscing, and I went out to my car to get a book to give to her. We continued talking after I gave her the book, and before she left I told her that there were several pictures in the back of the book. She was still standing at our table, and when she opened to those pages, her hands started to tremble. It was extremely moving.

In his Facebook post yesterday, Orzechowski described Vitkus as “a man of courage, justice, integrity, resiliency, humor, and humility. He was a remarkable advocate for the rights and care of people with mental disabilities.”

Orzechowski added that, “I am both privileged an honored to have shared his life story, and to have become a very close friend. We had quite a journey together.”

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