Remembering a painful past: Advocates and former resident call for Belchertown State School memorial

  • Richard Dresser, 66, of Amherst was a resident at the former Belchertown State School from the ages of 9 to 18 and has been an advocate for the disabled for 29 years. Photographed in North Amherst on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Site of the former Belchertown State School. SUBMITTED PHOTO/KENDALL CARDWELL 

Staff Writer
Published: 5/3/2019 4:16:08 PM
Modified: 5/3/2019 4:15:56 PM

BELCHERTOWN — When Donald Vitkus died in 2018, he left behind a legacy of disability rights advocacy. Vitkus, a former resident of Belchertown State School, worked with author Ed Orzechowski to chronicle his experiences at the school in a book and ultimately chose the Turkey Hill Road cemetery — where over 200 other former residents are buried — as his final resting place. 

But with Vitkus’ death, his son, David Vitkus, began to ponder how to keep the memory of the State School residents alive as those who lived there aged and died, leaving their stories at risk of being lost forever. 

“We were fortunate that (Donald) and Ed were friends, and he was able to write the book,” Vitkus said, referring to “‘You’ll Like It Here’: The Story of Donald Vitkus, Belchertown Patient #3394,” written by Orzechowski. “But there are are a lot of stories out there that are sitting in boxes … and those are never going to get told. People are never going to know about them. 

“Before long, even the books are going to start getting less attention,” he continued, “and we stand to lose this chapter in terms of the history of social services in Massachusetts.”

Now, Vitkus’ family is part of a group seeking to establish a permanent memorial to the former residents of Belchertown State School at the school’s old property. 

For decades, Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded, which was established as an institution for children with intellectual disabilities, was a site of serious human rights violations. The State School, which opened in 1922, was closed down 70 years later in 1992 after public criticism and a series of lawsuits that began in 1972. 

Some of the residents — called patients at the time — did have physical and developmental disabilities, while others did not have a disability but found themselves at the State School because of flaws in the child protection system.

Richard Dresser, a former resident of the State School for almost 10 years, said that he would like to see one of the State School buildings preserved as a museum focused on the history of the State School and its residents.

Dresser was left at the state school in 1962 by his parents — he used to “hang out with the wrong kids when I was little,” he said, and at the time, some saw the State School as a solution for childish misbehavior. 

Throughout his time at the State School, Dresser said that he would often put himself in harm’s way to protect other residents from abuse and tried to expose abusive staff members. Today, he remains passionate about advocating for children with disabilities — as part of this advocacy, Dresser wants to create opportunities for people to see what life was like at the State School.

“Sometimes it really hurts to talk about certain things,” Dresser said. But, he added, “I’ve got to do my best to talk about what happened.”

Too many people don’t know about what happened at the State School, according to Dresser, and he hopes that a memorial would help to broaden public knowledge. 

“It would be a really nice thing for history,” Dresser said of a possible museum. “I’m a part of history now.”

Remembering ‘a house of horrors’

MassDevelopment and the Belchertown Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (EDIC), which oversee the property’s redevelopment, currently have three plans “for recognition of the history, timeline, and residents of Belchertown State School,” in the works, MassDevelopment Spokeswoman Kelsey Schiller wrote in an email to the Gazette.

The main Village Green section of the neighborhood “will have focused space for a formal memorial,” although the nature of this memorial has yet to be decided, according to Schiller. The Lake Wallace Sensory Trail, a pedestrian and bike path circling the property, will also include historical markers and areas to reflect. 

Most buildings at the site were “beyond salvaging and contained hazardous materials,” Schiller wrote, although the EDIC and MassDevelopment are searching for a developer to redevelop the administration building, which hosts a rare clock that she said the organizations have protected. 

Since the 1990s, Belchertown officials have been attempting to redevelop the land in order to stimulate the town’s economy. Christopher Heights, an assisted-living community, is currently established on the property, with a day care center, brewery, multipurpose trail and roadway also in the works for the neighborhood on the State School property, called Carriage Grove.

Patricia Vitkus, Donald Vitkus’ widow, said that she understands the town’s desire to develop the property, but said that she wants to see “a lasting, substantial memorial” to former residents of the school at the “front and center” of that property. 

“I feel like they just want the stigma of that State School to go,” Patricia Vitkus said of the developers. “And, for us, it’s never going to be gone. It may be developed, but it’s always going to be a house of horrors and place where people died … And we don’t want to forget them.”

Patricia said that her husband was “one of the luckier ones that got out,” but added that his experiences at the State School impacted him for the rest of his life.

Maintaining history

Donald Vitkus was placed in six different foster homes before he was brought to the State School in 1949 at age 6 — he stayed there until age 17. The school classified him as a “moron” based on an IQ test, although he did not have an intellectual disability. 

Donald met Ed Orzechowski, a retired English teacher, in 2005, when Orzechowski was assisting the late University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Benjamin Ricci at a book signing. Ricci, who spearheaded the class-action lawsuit filed against the state in 1972, had written a book, “Crimes Against Humanity: A Historical Perspective,” chronicling his son’s placement into Belchertown State School and Ricci’s ensuing fight to expose the abuse that took place at the school. 

In March, Orzechwoski received the Dr. Benjamin Ricci Commemorative Award at the Massachusetts State House, where he called for a memorial in his acceptance speech.

Orzechowksi said that he is aware of plans for a walking trail with plaques at the State School, but he would like to see “something more substantial” honoring those who lived at the State School. 

“There are a lot of archive photos, records, that need to be displayed in a central place,” Orzechowksi told the Gazette. “Maybe not only from Belchertown but from the other institutions that are close as well.”

“I think it would assure former residents that people haven’t forgotten what happened to them there,” he added. 

David Vitkus echoed Dresser’s idea of establishing a museum on the property, focusing particularly on the old administration building as an ideal site for the memorial.

The developments taking place on the property are “inevitable and appropriate,” David said but added that he is concerned about “losing the history and the perspective” associated with the State School. 

“It’s all too easy to lose track of the lessons of history,” David said, “particularly if those lessons aren’t maintained.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com. 


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