Next year marks 25 years since the closing of the Belchertown State School. From the 1920s through 1992, the western Massachusetts campus housed people considered and labeled “feeble-minded.” The school became infamous by the 1970s for its horrible conditions and abuse of its patients.
One of those patients was Donald Vitkus. He was given up for adoption by his mother when he was 27 days old. He bounced between foster homes. When he was six, he was sent to Belchertown.
“They sent me there because they labeled me a moron,” said Vitkus, now 73. “They told me I had to be with those who were like me.”
Vitkus came to our studios with author Ed Orzechowski, the author of a new book recounting Vitkus’ life. It’s called, “You’ll Like It Here.” That’s the phrase Donald Vitkus remembers being told the day he was admitted to Belchertown.
Vitkus was not allowed to leave the grounds of the school. Many of his days were spent sitting for hours in forced silence along with his peers. No one ever came to visit him.
“The only way I knew the outside world was to see the television, and Martin Luther King and those kinds of people advocating for the rights of others,” Vitkus said. “That’s how I got motivated. Because I said, ‘I have to do something.’ I wanted to make things right for others, so that they would be treated right.”
He was eventually able to do that through advocacy work years later, and through this book. Back then at Belchertown, he tells of being humiliated by attendants in front of his fellow patients. He was made to kneel with his bare knees on a metal grate for an hour. He was put in solitary confinement multiple times. He was put in a straitjacket for refusing medication and biting off part of an attendant’s finger. That also landed him in solitary for over a month.
The book is a stark account of what went on at Belchertown. It’s also a blunt reminder of the language used at the time, which is clearly insensitive today.
“There were three clinical terms that were used to label people: ‘idiot,’ ‘imbecile’ and ‘moron.’ We still use those words today, but few people realize that they once were clinical terms according to your IQ level,” said author Ed Orzechowski.
Donald Vitkus left Belchertown at age 17 with a fourth grade education. He was “paroled” to live and work at a Catholic orphanage in West Springfield. The new setting gave him some measures of freedom. But he was still saddled by that marker — “moron” — that had been put on him as a six-year-old. Vitkus said it wasn’t until he joined the Army that he began to escape that label and some of the habits he’d developed at Belchertown.
“I did my job. They gave me a rifle and they said, ‘You’re not going to act this way. You’re going to do what we tell you to do, OK? You’re going to follow the rules.’ I hated authority before I came out. I hated those kinds of people. I didn’t want to listen to them,” Vitkus said. “So that’s what I had to do. I had to learn to follow the rules, and dress and all that other stuff. And eat a certain way and those things. I had to learn those things.”
After the Army, Vitkus returned to Western Massachusetts.
“I had a job working in a kitchen, and I was going to school nights,” he said. “That’s what I was doing to get my high school diploma.”
He also got married and had two children. He’d served ten months in Vietnam. In the book, he said that experience, coupled with his youth in an institution, have resulted in post traumatic stress.
His childhood, with little nurturing contact, made it difficult to connect with his own children and his first wife. He eventually got divorced and was away from his kids for years. A painful question still hung over him from his childhood at Belchertown:
Why? Why was I treated like a criminal like that? Why were we all treated that way? I never knew why.”
There was no good explanation, but some justice was done after a 1972 class action lawsuit, led by former UMass professor Ben Ricci who had a son at the school. He was appalled by what he saw when he visited Belchertown, and spent years fighting for conditions to improve at the school. Ricci wrote a book about it, and Vitkus said that’s how his son, Dave, heard about the conditions his father had grown up in.
“I did not want my son to know I grew up at Belchertown. Because I didn’t want him to think he was a moron like I was. And he found out about the book, and I cried because I didn’t want him to know,” said Vitkus. “He said, ‘Dad, we’re all so proud of you for what you have done with your life. You came from nowhere to what you have accomplished. We’re very proud of you.’ The family is very, very proud of me.”
Vitkus has accomplished a lot. With the help of his son, he tracked down his siblings and the grave of his mother, who’d given him up for adoption. After receiving a high school diploma, he used the GI Bill to get an associate’s degree from Holyoke Community College. He then spent years working as an assistant to people with developmental disabilities.
While visiting his daughter in South Carolina, Vitkus met his current wife, Pat. They’ve been together for 21 years.
“We met at a friend’s house,” said Pat Vitkus. “From the moment I met him, I really wanted to get to know more about him because he’s very kind-hearted. I remember it like it was yesterday, because I didn’t want him to go home. So it worked out.”
“It was through her family that I learned what family life is like,” Donald Vitkus said. “Instead of sitting at separate tables, being alone, because that’s what I used to do. They said, ‘You can’t do that here. You got to sit with us. You got to eat with us.'”
Vitkus’ health has taken a turn in recent years. A few months ago, he began living at the Northampton VA Medical Center in Leeds.
“I can’t live at home because I have seizures. They say there’s something wrong with my brain. I’m disappointed in myself as a husband because I’m not home. I love that girl, and she’s been by me and supporting me,” Vitkus said. “It’s remarkable. She deserves a medal of honor for what she’s gone through. She does.” Pat laughs.
Vitkus said he misses his freedom, but he’s grateful to the VA and said they treat him well. His story is one of perseverance. I asked him what’s kept him going through the years.
“I wanted them to close that place. I wanted them to close Belchertown, and make better lives for people,” Vitkus said. “Give people more opportunities. That’s what I wanted.”
Now it is closed, but the work of improving care and assistance for people with developmental disabilities continues, according to author Ed Orzechowski.
“We realize that today there is care. It’s far away from what Belchertown conditions were like, but there still is abuse, there still is neglect in individual group homes, and it’s a fairly fragile situation with funding,” said Orzechowski. “We want to make sure that people today know what the history was, and we don’t go back to that.”
The book is “You’ll Like It Here: The Story of Donald Vitkus, Belchertown Patient number 3394.”