A Tribute to Lace and Walter Vitunac
Lace Vitunac (1924-2018), was the daughter of Dr. Peter Kitterman of Fort Pierce. She graduated from the University of Texas at age 18, after having been named Homecoming Queen. She was an accomplished bareback horse rider, and a crack shot with a rifle. While working as a journalist for the El Paso Herald-Post, she met and married then Army Air Force Lieutenant Walter Vitunac. As a military family they were stationed at bases all over the world, however, Lace always brought the children home to summer in Fort Pierce. Their daily visits to the area now known as the Fort Pierce Inlet State Park were magical.
Almost immediately after volunteering to join the Army Air Corps Walter Vitunac (1919-2011) initiated the effort to rescue parts from airplanes as Pearl Harbor was being bombed. After becoming a navigator, flying B17s in the South Pacific, he participated in the Battle of Midway and the Solomon Islands Campaign, and was chosen to be the navigator for a highly classified mission with Admiral Bull Halsey. He flew more than 50 combat missions, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with Clusters. Post-war his assignments in Military Intelligence Services took him to Europe and Japan. He was Commander of the 6499th Support Group at Johnson Air Force in Japan. His last position was Commander of Cape Kennedy Air Force Station during the Apollo Mission, which included the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Retiring in 1971 to Fort Pierce the couple quickly commenced their next mission: to save the “North Beach”, the beloved natural treasure bordered by the Fort Pierce Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean, the site of countless family gatherings since the 1920s, from a developer’s quest to build condominiums there. After travelling the world, they had determined how unique and extraordinary it was.
By 1972, due to the couple’s leadership this 340-acre parcel was officially decreed to be the Fort Pierce Inlet State Park.
In just one year, the couple helped to found the Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County, along with five other forward-looking citizens, to be the tool to insure the protection in perpetuity of this refuge beloved by the entire community. Creating an alliance among a wide variety of civic groups their petition for state park designation was rapidly granted. Families forevermore could gear up with snorkels, fishing rods, surfboards, and hiking gear to be used at this all-in-one smorgasbord of native Florida. The Park remains a destination spot for surfers along the East Coast, and habitat for a wonderfully diverse array of marine and terrestrial coastal species, including the once-thought-to-be-extinct Atala butterfly.
Without pause, the Vituancs and the Alliance embarked in 1973 on a four-year effort to “save the Savannas.” With assistance from Martin County advocates the Savannas Preserve State Park was established in 1977. Today at more than 6,000 acres the Park protects the largest remaining freshwater coastal marsh on the East Coast, and provides critically important ecosystem services.
From then on the Alliance became known as the effective vanguard tool for protecting St. Lucie County’s environment. Guided by the mission penned by Col. Vitunac, “pledged to protect the water, soil, air, native flora and fauna, upon which all earth’s creatures depend for survival,” the Alliance directly led or participated in an astonishing number of achievements. These included: hundreds more acres in conservation land status; formation and staffing of the Indian River Lagoon Aquatic Preserve; rejection of projects harmful to the Fort Pierce Inlet, Port of Fort Pierce’s and Indian River Lagoon’s water quality; other pollution prevention and species protection initiatives, and so on. The Alliance provided fertile ground for the emergence of community leaders, like county commissioners.