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A Catholic father in rural Virginia always put his faith and others first. (Pictured: Tom Vander Woude with his sons at a graduation.)
BY Tim DrakeRegister Senior Writer
NOKESVILLE, Va. — The story of a
Catholic father dying to save his son started being told in a small town in
Virginia. Then on the front page of the The Washington Post.
Then it began to be repeated on blogs and in online discussions from coast to
But those who know him say they
always knew Thomas Vander Woude was special. Whether it was installing a
gymnasium floor, training altar boys or coaching sports, when the daily
communicant father of seven saw a need, he stepped in.
That trait led to the ultimate
sacrifice on Sept. 8, when he dove into a septic tank to save the life of his
Anne Carroll, director of Seton High
School, in Manassas, where Vander Woude coached, served on the board and
volunteered, said Vander Woulde sacrificed for others “on a daily basis.”
“He died as he lived,” Carroll said.
Born in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1942,
Vander Woude left the farm to join the Navy. A pilot, he served the country for
17 years and was a Vietnam War veteran. He married Mary Ellen Earley in 1964,
and the couple raised seven sons: Tom, Steve, Dan, Bob, Chris, Pat and Joseph.
In 2002, he retired after 26 years as a commercial airline pilot. Between 2002
and 2007, he served as athletics director at Christendom College in Front
The more than 2,000 people, 70
priests and one bishop who attended his funeral Mass on Sept. 15 at Holy
Trinity Catholic Church in Gainesville, all came to pay their respects to a man
who inspired them not only in life, but also in death.
Vander Woude’s son Father Thomas
Vander Woude celebrated the Mass and gave the homily. Bishop Paul Loverde of
Arlington, Va., presided.
A Selfless Life
Vander Woude’s life was marked by
selflessness and humility. His third son, Dan, who lives next door to his
parents in Nokesville, said that when his father saw a need, he didn’t worry
about whether he was the most qualified — he just stepped in.
“He didn’t know soccer, but there
was a need, so he went to coaching clinics to learn that,” Dan recalled.
“Whether it was coaching basketball, soccer or directing altar boys, he was
very good with young men.”
There were several things about his
father’s spiritual life that stood out for him.
“When others asked about the secrets
of success for raising Catholic families, he was always quick to point to the
family Rosary,” said Dan. “He was definitely devoted to Our Lady.”
“He also did a Holy Hour between two
and three in the morning and was a daily communicant. With the Rosary, he used
to say a prayer to St. Joseph,” added Dan. “Those were the things in front of
us that we saw of our father. In this culture, which is selling a lot of stuff,
I had a father on his knees who was showing me how to be a man of God.”
Vander Woude’s devotion to the
Blessed Mother also led the family to host an annual Marian festival/procession/picnic
on their farm the last Sunday of May. Hundreds of family friends and
acquaintances would attend the celebration, which the family held for nearly
A Father’s Love
Vander Woude, 66, died while helping
his youngest son, Joseph, 20, who has Down syndrome. Joseph fell through an old
cover that gave way into a septic tank on their property. Vander Woude yelled
to a workman to call 911 and jumped in, forcing himself past Joseph so that he
could get underneath him to hold him up.
to family friend Michael McGrath, Vander Woude told the worker, “You pull, I’ll
he lifted Joseph up, his eyes closed, and he collapsed into the tank,” said
McGrath. “When the paramedics came, they were unable to resuscitate him.”
who knew him said that his love for his sons was paramount.
son Bob said, ‘It’s so right that he died saving one of us,’” said Peter
Westhoff, a former teacher at Seton, where Vander Woude’s sons went to school.
time on the farm, he told me, ‘You know, I don’t want any of the boys to ever
leave. I’d love to have them around me all my life,’” recalled Westhoff.
that end, Vander Woude had his 26-acre property split up, giving an acre of
land to each of his sons. Two of his sons live on the nearby parcels.
remembers a time in the mid-1990s when a school in Washington, D.C., was
closing, and he went there to get materials for his school. When Westhoff
entered the biology lab, there among the jarred lab specimens was a human
fetus. Westhoff didn’t feel it was appropriate to leave it, but he wasn’t sure
what to do.
called Vander Woude’s eldest son, Father Thomas Vander Woude, now pastor of
Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria. “He said, ‘I’m sure my dad and mom
would have a burial on the farm,’” said Westhoff. “When I called Mr. Vander
Woude, there wasn’t any hesitation.”
Pete Scheetz built a small pine coffin for the child. “When Mr. Vander Woude
saw the pine coffin, he commented, ‘Where can we get in line for ours?’”
Vander Woude’s death, Scheetz built
another simple pine coffin for his friend. Scheetz’ wife and the Vander Woude
daughters-in-law added a personal touch, sewing in the wedding dress of Mary
Ellen, Vander Woude’s wife, as the lining.
Faithful to the End
difficult as Vander Woude’s passing has been for his family, son Dan said that
there have been many blessings. One comfort is that their father, who was
dedicated to the Rosary, died on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed
Virgin Mary and was buried on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.
consolation is that God is using Dad’s witness to touch a lot of people’s
hearts,” said Dan.
Woude’s dying act was “truly saintly” and “the crown of a whole life of
self-giving,” Bishop Loverde said at the Mass, according to The Washington Post. “May we find in his life inspiration and strength.”
Dan, “We’ve heard of priests in Spain and Colorado preaching about my dad’s
death during their homilies on the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. I’ve also
heard from many friends that his story is inspiring other husbands and fathers
for how they should be leading their daily lives.”
Drake is based in