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 coast.
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 son.
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 Royal.
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 two decades.
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.
According to family friend Michael McGrath, Vander Woude told the worker, “You pull, I’ll push.”
“As 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.”
Those who knew him said that his love for his sons was paramount.
“His 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.
“One 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.
To 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.
Westhoff 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.
He 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.”
Friend 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?’” remembers Westhoff.
After 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
As 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.
“One consolation is that God is using Dad’s witness to touch a lot of people’s hearts,” said Dan.
Vander 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.”
Said 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.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.