Developmental disabilities advocate to be buried among his ‘brothers and sisters’

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Donald Vitkus, who was a patient at Belchertown State School, answers a question during a reading of "You'll Like It Here" by Ed Orzechowski, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at Whole Children. His wife, Patricia, sits beside him. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Ed Orzechowski, of Florence, reads from his book, "You'll Like It Were", during a reading and book signing Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017 at Whole Children. The book tells the story of Donald Vitkus, who was a patient at Belchertown State School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2018 6:57:37 PM

BELCHERTOWN — A well-known developmental disabilities advocate will have his dying wish granted Saturday at the Warner-Pine Grove Cemetery, where he will be buried alongside patients he grew up with at the former Belchertown State School.

As described in his obituary, Donald Vitkus’ “years at Belchertown (State School), combined with his strong spirit and dogmatic view of the world, created a lifelong passion for helping others,” including serving as vice president of Advocacy Network Inc. and spending more than two decades helping the developmentally disabled.

Vitkus died at 74 on Jan. 24 at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Previously, he had lived at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds.

A memorial service will be conducted at the site off Turkey Hill Road in Belchertown at 2:30 p.m. Saturday for the burial of his ashes. Janet F. Ryder, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services (DDS) will be in attendance.

“Most of all (Donald) would want people not to forget about the developmentally disabled and about the conditions they live in, even now,” retired English teacher Ed Orzechowski, of Northampton, said. Orzechowski authored a book, “You’ll Like it Here,” about the horrors Vitkus overcame at the Belchertown State School.

Born on May 12, 1943, in Waltham to a mother and father he never met, Vitkus was surrendered to state custody at just 27 days old. Shuttled through six foster homes before the age of 6, Vitkus eventually landed at the Belchertown State School, which classified him as a “moron” at the age of 3 based on an IQ test, although he was not mentally handicapped.

Vitkus spent 11 years, between 1949 and 1960, at the state school that housed up to 1,300 people behind barred windows in locked wards crammed with rows of beds. A federal class action lawsuit closed the school in 1992 after 70 years. Though many had severe disabilities, there were those, like Vitkus, who ended up there because they were misdiagnosed, orphaned or simply unwanted.

He served in Vietnam in the United States Army as a private first class from 1964 to 1966. When he returned, he landed a job in one of Holyoke’s paper mills and then worked at U.S. Envelope in West Springfield for 30 years until the plant closed in 2003. At that point he returned to school and got an associate degree in human services from Holyoke Community College in 2005 at the age of 62.

Eventually he got a job as a personal caregiver and began speaking out about the need for better treatment of the disabled.

In March of this year, Vitkus was named posthumous recipient of the Dr. Benjamin Ricci Commemorative Award in a ceremony at the Massachusetts Statehouse.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia Vitkus of Savannah, Ga., a son and daughter, a stepdaughter and four grandchildren.

“It says a lot that he is buried there alongside previous patients because they never had an honest chance and most lived and died at the school,” his grandson, William Vitkus, said. “It says something to bury someone who is a college graduate, Army veteran, husband, father, and grandfather there, and it speaks to the potential those other people would’ve had.”

William Vitkus, of Tucson, Arizona, contacted DDS in January to make arrangements for his grandfather’s burial, and he said Ryder was “instrumental” in making the ceremony a reality.

Orzechowski said that when Vitkus was a patient at Belchertown State School he never had any visitors in his 11 years there. Now he will have visitors when he is buried there.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.


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