When Bob Vitkus passed away last year, his estate named the Central New York Community Foundation the recipient of $10 million to support outdoor parks and recreation areas, a cause that had significant importance to him.
At first glance, Bob Vitkus, was a successful oral surgeon and an avid hunter and fly fisherman. But the depth of his character went far beyond the descriptions of his attention to detail and love of the outdoors.
In high school, Bob excelled academically and athletically. He received his varsity letter as a freshman wrestler, while also playing baseball and soccer. Later, he became an avid skier. Bob was an expert in just about anything for which he had a passion. “He didn’t have a lot of raw talent in most sports,” said Jim Vitkus, Bob’s brother, “He just outworked everybody else.”
Bob’s hard work took him to Georgetown University Dental School and a general practice residency at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse. He later began his oral surgery practice in Central New York, joining the late Dr. Eugene Hickey’s practice. As a perfectionist with an eye for detail, he took on the toughest cases. When other dentists ran into a difficult situation with a patient, they would often sent them to Bob. He eventually took over Dr. Hickey’s practice and by the end of his career, he and his partners owned 4 offices and had 50 employees. Bob’s service to the community included being past president of the Onondaga County Dental Society. He was also a member of the 5th District Dental Society, DeWitt Rod & Gun Club, Ruffed Grouse Society of Central New York and the Syracuse/Canadian Fish & Game Club.
As a hunter and fisherman, Bob, the consummate gentleman, always played by the rules of the hunt and never took unfair advantage. He firmly believed that if you killed it, you should eat it. According to his friends, life and death were not a game to Bob and he wasn’t searching for a trophy. Bob often said, “Limit your kill; don’t kill your limit.”
He was a dedicated son, friend, brother and uncle. While Bob never had children of his own, he was a devoted uncle to his three nieces. Jim noted in Bob’s eulogy, “By all accounts. He had three loves in his life. They were my kids: Lauren, Karen and Diane.” On June 26, 2020, just four days after Bob’s passing, his niece Lauren, who followed in his dental footsteps by becoming an orthodontist, named her first child Patrick Robert, in his honor.
Dr. Marty Talcik, Bob’s long time hunting and fishing friend, told Bob, “Since you don’t have a wife, you need a dog.” Marty introduced Bob to the German Shorthaired Pointer Breed. First came Fred followed by Sadie of the same breed. The dogs served Bob as best friends and hunting buddies for years.
Bob’s thoughtfulness and quiet resolve came from spending time with the lands, lakes, oceans and mountains that he bonded with over the years. According to his brother Jim, he listened, he learned, he analyzed, he observed and he never forgot a detail. He played his cards close to his vest. He kept his own counsel. He never acted superior and he treated everyone with respect. He didn’t complain. He didn’t brag. Bob was a good listener and analyzed the conversations around him. “You never really knew what he was thinking, but he probably knew what you were thinking,” said his brother Jim during his eulogy.
Bob passed away in June 2020 after a 17-year battle with pancreatic cancer. “The only thing he couldn’t beat in the end was cancer, but he even gave that a run for its money,” said Jim.
Bob’s last will and testament left much for community benefit. The Dr. Robert J. Vitkus Fund will support outdoor parks and recreation areas with a preference for funding programs that involve youth, hunting and fishing or conservation efforts to improve wildlife habitat and forest health.
The field-of-interest fund adds to the amount of grantmaking dollars available through the Community Foundation’s bi-annual Community Grant program, which supports nonprofit programs, capital projects and organizational development efforts in Onondaga and Madison counties.
“The power of endowment takes the generosity of amazing people like Bob and ensures that their charitable wishes persevere through generations,” said Thomas Griffith, vice president, development of the Community Foundation. “This fund allows Bob’s values of honoring the outdoors and being a good sportsman to be carried on through time for the enjoyment of others.”
Endowed funds are designed to benefit the community in perpetuity. The Community Foundation will use a percentage of the fund each year to provide grants to nonprofits. The remaining fund balance will be invested, growing to keep up with inflation and increasing the annual spendable allowance for grants. Over time, the cumulative amount of grants awarded is expected to surpass the original gift used to seed the fund.
Bob also provided sizable donations directly to the Central New York Ruffed Grouse Society and the CNY Land Trust to support habitat improvement, sportsmanship, and enjoyment of the outdoors.
While Bob will be missed by so many, his legacy lives on through his gracious financial support for the conservation of Central New York’s land, promoting both sportsmanship and habitat development.
Griffith stated, “He didn’t just give us money, he gave us nature.”