How Donald Vitkus of Leeds, abandoned at an institution for the mentally disabled as a child, made a life for himself (w/video)

  • Ed Orzechowski of Northampton reads from his book, "You'll like it here," which was published last fall. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Vitkus, 73, who has multiple health problems now, lives at the VA Medical Center in Leeds, while his wife, who visits often, lives in their home in Chicopee. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donald Vitkus, who grew up at Belchertown State School, talks about his experiences from a bed in his room at the Community Living Center of the VA Medical Center in Leeds, Feb. 26. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donald Vitkus and his wife, Patricia, in his room in the Community Living Center at the VA Medical Center in Leeds. Foster parents dropped Vitkus off at Belchertown State School when he was 6 years old. He lived there until he was 17. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donald Vitkus, who grew up at Belchertown State School, talks about his experiences from a bed in his room at the Community Living Center of the VA Medical Center in Leeds, Feb. 26. His wife, Patricia, is beside him. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ed Orzechowski, of Florence, speaks about his book, "You'll Like It Here", the story of Donald Vitkus, during a book signing Jan. 24 at Whole Children in Hadley. Beside him is Donald Vitkus and Patricia Vitkus. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donald Vitkus, who grew up at Belchertown State School, speaks about his experiences during a reading of a book about him by Ed Orzechowski called "You'll Like It Here", Jan. 24, at Whole Children. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donald Vitkus, who grew up at Belchertown State School, speaks about his experiences during a reading of a book about him by Ed Orzechowski called "You'll Like It Here", Jan. 24, at Whole Children. His wife, Patricia, is beside him. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donald Vitkus, who grew up at Belchertown State School, speaks about his experiences during a reading of a book about him by Ed Orzechowski called "You'll Like It Here", Jan. 17, at Whole Children. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donald Vitkus, who grew up at Belchertown State School, speaks about his experiences during a reading of a book about him by Ed Orzechowski called "You'll Like It Here", Jan. 24, at Whole Children. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donald Vitkus, who grew up at Belchertown State School, speaks about his experiences at his home in the Community Living Center of the VA Medical Center in Leeds, Feb. 26. His wife, Patricia, is beside him. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Northampton author Ed Orzechowski, left, tells Donald Vitkus’ story in the book “You’ll like it here.” Vitkus, right, attends a recent reading at Whole Children in Hadley. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • When released from Belchertown State School, Vitkus went on to serve in the Army, got married, had two children and earned a college degree. But the road was bumpy. He says he finally learned about love from his second wife, Patricia. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 3/21/2017 3:37:02 PM

On an October afternoon in 1955, a 12-year-old boy named Donald Vitkus took the first step in a long search for the mother he never knew.

With a mop and bucket in hand, he’d been left unsupervised for a few minutes in an office at Belchertown State School, an institution for the mentally retarded where he’d lived for six years.

Tall for his age, with blond hair and hazel eyes, Donald spent part of every day doing assigned chores — cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, working in the kitchen.

He wasn’t “a retard,” in the phrase that was commonly used back then, but he was unlucky.

Born in 1943 in Waltham to an unwed mother who’d signed him over to the state’s welfare department, he’d shuttled through six foster homes by the time he was 6. Records described him as slow to develop, slow to talk, perhaps malnourished, sometimes stubborn and prone to temper tantrums.

On July 13, 1949, his last foster parents, no longer willing to care for him, drove him to Belchertown State School, signed the papers, told him he’d like it there, and left.

And that was how he came to be in this small office. There wasn’t much, just a desk and a file cabinet. Scanning the room, his eye fell on a drawer labeled with a white card that read “U-Z”.

The moment is recounted in “You’ll like it here,” a book about Vitkus’ life by Ed Orzechowski, 71, of Northampton.

“The drawer squeaked as I slowly pulled it all the way out. There, way in the back, was ‘Vitkus #23-3394.’ ”

On the first page, he saw his name, including a middle name he didn’t know he had: Donald Everett Vitkus.

Then, the word “Mother.”

“Beside an X, … was ‘Veronica Vitkus.’ My mother. For the first time in my life, my mother had a name.”

Fearful of getting caught, he shoved the folder back in the drawer and closed it.

“The same old questions ran through my head. Why didn’t she keep me? How come she has never visited? Where is she? Who is she? Who am I?”

Published last fall by Levellers Press of Amherst, “‘You’ll like it here.’ Donald Vitkus — Belchertown Patient #3394” chronicles his effort to answer those questions.

Based on extensive interviews, the book describes his years at Belchertown, from age 6 to 17, enduring squalor, stench, neglect, cruelty and abuse. It reveals the determination that propelled him to survive and to make a life later on. And it shows what it’s like to grow up without a family and to come to terms with the past.

Now 73, Vitkus is a bit battered by age and illness, but still has a determined, defiant streak. He needs a walker to get around, but tries to walk a mile a day.

“That’s my goal,” he said, “to stay out of a wheelchair.”

To keep us with the world, he often checks out news sites online.

He lives at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, where he’s treated for seizures, memory issues and other health problems. Patricia Vitkus, his wife, stays at their home in Chicopee and visits often.

In recent weeks, they’ve gone to a series of book signings with Orzechowski.

“It’s helped me a lot,” Vitkus said, as we talked one afternoon. At one, the audience applauded him for being a Vietnam vet. People have thanked him for telling his life story.

“I was nervous,” he said. “I don’t want them to think badly of me, like I’m a retard or something.”

Pat gently interjects: “Honey, I don’t think they think that at all.”

‘No mail or visitors’

Vitkus was one of about 1,300 patients who lived behind barred windows, in locked wards crammed with rows of beds.

Though many had severe disabilities, there were also those, like him, who ended up there because they were misdiagnosed, troubled, orphaned or unwanted. In Donald’s case, an IQ test at age 3 concluded he was a “moron,” a category used then. It meant he wasn’t as hopeless as an “idiot” or “imbecile” — also official terms — but neither was he destined for much.

A single, haunting refrain appears year after year in the Belchertown records that are reproduced in the book:

“He receives no mail and has no visitors.”

“No mail, no vacations.”

“This patient has not had visits from his foster family parents for the past nine years.”

Once in a while, he’d catch sight of children being taken out for ice cream, or a visit home.

“I envied kids on the ward who had family — no, I hated them,” he says in the book. One time, a boy he knew came back with a shiny black toy telephone.

“After supper the next night, I snuck upstairs, found the phone by Bobby’s bed, and hid it beneath my mattress. I didn’t have parents, and I didn’t have visitors. But now I had Bobby Ricci’s phone.”

The only bright spot was learning. Belchertown had elementary-level classes that covered the basics, and Vitkus thrived in them. “That was a safe haven for me,” he said. A teacher wrote, “He is an eager and interested pupil who likes to know the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of things.”

Moving on

In 1960, as he neared 18, the powers-that-be told Vitkus that it was time to leave. In a move they called parole — a test of his ability to make it — Vitkus was taken to Our Lady of Providence Home for Children, now Brightside for Families and Children, a Catholic orphanage in West Springfield.

“I was very afraid that if I failed, I would be sent back,” he recalled. Ahead of him lay the hurdle of mastering skills that others his age had learned long ago: how to use toilet paper, or handle a knife and fork, or cross the street, or hang laundry on a line, or deposit a paycheck.

Sister Mary Agatha gave him a card with a date he’d never seen before — May 12, 1943. This is your birth date, she told him.

After working a while as a dishwasher, Vitkus managed to convince the local draft board that he was indeed mentally fit to serve in the Army. He was sent to Vietnam.

When he returned in 1966, he landed a job in one of Holyoke’s paper mills. Though his temper made the road bumpy, he hung on to work at U.S. Envelope in West Springfield for 30 years, until the plant closed in 2003.

He took night classes at Chicopee Comprehensive High School, earning a diploma in 1976, and went on to get an associate degree in human services at Holyoke Community College in 2005 where he also became president of the Human Services Club. Eventually he got a job as a personal caregiver, and began speaking out about the need for better treatment of the disabled.

By a measure that mattered a lot to him, he was a success: He was never sent back to Belchertown State School.

Forging a family

Vitkus had left Belchertown eager to have a girlfriend, but woefully unprepared for a relationship.

Married for the first time after he got back from Vietnam, he was soon the father of two. But as he says in the book, he didn’t understand intimacy and had no idea how to show either of his children, or his wife, affection.

“I recoiled at anything that approached being held,” he said. At birthday parties, “I was actually jealous of seeing my own kids unwrap presents, so I stayed in another room until they were finished.”

The marriage ended after 15 years, and Vitkus saw his children rarely after that. “I was a good provider, but a lousy husband and father,” he told Orzechowski.

“There’s a lot of truth in that,” said his son, David Vitkus, 49, a former Northampton Police Department officer, who now lives out of state. He reflected on his father in a recent interview: “He wasn’t violent or abusive, but he had a hell of a temper. And there was that reluctance to connect.”

But David didn’t close the door. In 1989, after graduating from the Western Massachusetts Police Academy, he picked up the phone to share his news with his father. Sporadic visits followed.

“I could tell the past weighed on him,” he said. “He’d mention that he didn’t know anything about his mother.” One night, David’s wife, Laura, suggested that maybe it was time to find out. Donald agreed, though he says in the book his reason was hatred, not longing. “I wanted to find my mother, but I was motivated more by revenge. ... I wanted to tell her in no uncertain terms how I felt about being abandoned. I had developed a backlog of pent-up anger, and wanted to hurt her, maybe even physically.”

On the road

The search, carried out in fits and starts stretching over three years, occupies a sizable chunk of Orzechowski’s book.

It began in the early 1990s, with a visit to Belchertown State School. Most patients by then had been moved out into community settings. Boxes of paperwork were being readied for storage.

A clerk helped Donald and David find file #23-3394. They left with a thick envelope of clues — names, addresses, his birth certificate and foster care records.

Fitting the search into their spare time, they crisscrossed Massachusetts and neighboring states, stopping at courthouses and city halls.

“It was really an opportunity to get reacquainted,” David said. “We did a lot of catching up in the car. I think it was very cathartic for him, and in a way for me, too.”

They learned that Donald was one of five illegitimate children born to Veronica Vitkus. She’d surrendered all of them to state custody — Donald at just 27 days old. His father — allegedly, the form noted — was a man named Donald Williams. One sister was adopted. Two other girls and one boy went to foster care, but were later returned to Veronica. She died in South Carolina in 1972, at age 50.

Donald and David also contacted Ann Henry of Northampton, who headed Today Reunites Yesterday, an organization that assisted people searching for their birth families. With Henry mediating the process, the five siblings agreed to meet in Savannah, Georgia.

“She always told Dad to keep his expectations reasonable,” David recalled.

Though he discovered shared physical traits, Donald felt he was meeting strangers.

In later visits, though, conversations with two sisters went deeper. Aware of Donald’s anger, they described their mother’s hardships: her own mother’s early death, an alcoholic father, little money, a stint at a school for juvenile delinquents, out-of-wedlock pregnancies. There was a sadness about her, they told him. They were sure she would have come for him, had she known how badly things turned out for him.

“I understand more of the struggles she had,” he said. “I don’t love her, but I understand her more.”

Heading out

On a recent Sunday, Pat Vitkus was visiting her husband at the VA. They planned to celebrate her birthday with lunch at a restaurant. “There wasn’t any love in my life until I met her,” Vitkus said, as the couple prepared to leave.

They met when he traveled south to meet his siblings, and have been together 20 years.

As he pulled on his jacket, grabbed the handles of his walker and headed toward the elevator, he wanted to make one more point.

When he comes back to the VA after an outing, he never goes around telling everyone what a great time he had.

“There are a lot of people who live here who don’t ever have that,” he said. “And so I try not to brag about it, because I know what it was like to have that life.”

For more

Book signings and readings for “You’ll like it here” will be held March 29, 7 p.m., Clapp Memorial Library, Belchertown; and April 12, 11 a.m., Holyoke Community College. For more information: www.edorze.com.




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