Franc Vitale bequests millions to Weston groups

Franc Vitale left part of his estate to the Weston Volunteer Fire Department and Weston EMS. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

Franc Vitale left part of his estate to the Weston Volunteer Fire Department and Weston EMS. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

Franc Vitale, a fashion designer and avid gardener, has become a major benefactor of the town of Weston.

When Mr. Vitale died on March 11, 2010, at the age of 83, he remembered the Weston Public Library, the Weston Volunteer Fire Department, Weston Emergency Medical Services, and the Weston Historical Society in his will.

The amount each group has inherited from Mr. Vitale is a bit staggering. The library, fire department, and EMS are each receiving approximately $1 million from his estate, while the historical society will receive around $370,000. The numbers aren’t finalized yet because the estate is still distributing funds.

First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said, on behalf of the town, she is greatly appreciative of Mr. Vitale’s bequests.

“It is an amazing gift,” said Fire Chief John Pokorny.

“This was a tremendous surprise, and a wonderful thing,” said Jon Weingarten, president of Weston EMS. “We’re really grateful to Franc Vitale, I can’t say enough about that,” he said.

Karen Tatarka, the town’s librarian, called Mr. Vitale’s gift “very exciting” and said it will help the library improve its facility.

Reg Bowden, president of the historical society, said the funds will be used to put the historical society on a “stronger financial foundation.”

In his will, Mr. Vitale left specific financial bequests to two family members and a friend.

Franc Vitale's bequest gives the Weston Historical Society a :better foundation. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

Franc Vitale’s generosity gives the Weston Historical Society a better foundation. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

The rest, residue and remainder of his estate he left to local civic groups. He left 25% to the library, 25% to the Weston Volunteer Fire Department, 25% to Weston EMS, 20% to Bread and Roses Hospice of Westport, and 5% to the Weston Historical Society.

A huge bulk of Mr. Vitale’s estate came from the sale of a waterfront cottage he owned on Georgica Pond in Wainscott, Long Island. The cottage sold for more than $4 million after his death.

Who was Franc Vitale?

So who was this generous benefactor?

Mr. Vitale was born in New York City, and raised in Cairo, N.Y. At an early age, he exhibited a flair for fashion and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology. He worked part-time as a model, most notably, he was “Mr. Jantzen” for the Jantzen swimsuit company in the early 1950s.

Mr. Vitale became a successful fashion designer and created stylish children’s clothes under the brand name Ruth Originals. The line was so well-crafted that the upscale French fashion Company, Absorba, bought it in 1977.

He lived part-time on Long Island and part-time in Weston for 45 years with his partner Tom Hulbert, who owned the Dress Box clothing store in Westport.

Debbie Gilbertie-Giannelli, who runs Weston Gardens, remembers him as an avid gardener who grew thousands of daffodils at his home, and spent many hours milling about Weston Gardens with her.

“I loved him dearly, he was like a second father to me,” she said.

In addition to gardening, Mr. Vitale loved antiques and fine dining. Weston children’s librarian Joy Beckwith said he would often tell her where the best food was in the area. He especially liked the lamb chops and meat at Peter’s Market, she said.

Among his friends, Mr. Vitale enjoyed the company of actress Bette Davis when she lived in Weston. “The two shared a weakness for native ferns and Stouffer’s frozen pizza,” according to Mr. Vitale’s obituary in The Weston Forum.

Library guy

Retired Weston Library Director Jane Atkinson knew Mr. Vitale for many years. She said he spent a lot of time at the library.

The Weston Public Library plans to do some renovations with Franc Vitale's bequest. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

The Weston Public Library plans to do some renovations with Franc Vitale’s bequest. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

“I don’t think he ever checked out a book, but he was here quite a bit, and he loved to talk. He was quite delightful and I loved him,” she said.

She said he especially loved to talk about his garden, and one day he complained that the lilac bush in front of the library needed pruning. “He cared about how things were done, it annoyed him when he thought things weren’t being done the right way,” she said.

One day, she said, he told her he was making his will and he knew the fire department and EMS were great, but what could she tell him about the historical society? “I told him they were a group of people who cared about Weston,” she said.

Ms. Tatarka said the library is looking to do some renovations to the interior of the building to make it more comfortable for patrons, so the financial gift will come in handy.

Fire Chief Pokorny called Mr. Vitale “a unique man.” He said the fire department is discussing the bequest and figuring out the best way to make the money work for the department.

Mr. Vitale’s bequest makes a huge difference for Weston EMS, Mr. Weingarten said. While ambulance service in Weston is free for residents, EMS is an all-volunteer group that has to buy all its equipment and ambulances. So the financial support from Mr. Vitale is a big help.

“This long term endowment will preserve our volunteer organization so we don’t have to charge people in the community for ambulance services. It gives us some financial security,” he said.

In Mr. Vitale’s obituary, he is quoted as saying, “With me or without me, kiddo, the show will go on.” Because of his generosity, the show will go on for these four groups in Weston.

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