Franciscan Way, Winter 2009
The world rarely notices Christian heroes, or at least it rarely recognizes them as Christians-but sometimes it does. Even The Pla.,hington Post noticed Thomas S. Vander Woude. About middayon September 8, thefeast ofthe Birth ofOurLady, his 20-year~01d son, Joseph, a young man with Down Syndrome, stepped onto the lid of the septic tank at his family’s home. The lid gave way, plunging him over his head into SLX feet ofsewage.Thomas jumped into the tank and held up his son-who was heavier than he was-so he could breathe, until his mother and a bricklayer working on the home could pull him out.
Thomas, the father of 7 sons, and grandfather of 25, drowned in the filth rather than let down his son. ”At the funeral Mass, held on Our Lady of Sorrows feast day, the image of St. Joseph was used as a way to explain much about my father,” says his son, Bob ’94. “I’ve been asked, ‘How was it that your father was able to do such a thing?’ The answer is simple. He had been living a life of service, humility, and sacrifice as long as I can remember.”
His lived for others. “Despite getting up at 4:30 a.m. to go fly for the airlines, he still returned to school in the afternoon to coach” at Seton High School and later Christendom College, even helping out with the maintenance work, Bob remembers. He did not treat his time as his own. “He gave countless hours to the Catholic community in Northern Virginia” beyond the time he was already giving to his family.
At their church, Holy Trinity Parish in Gainesville, Virginia, every Sunday for years, Thomas prepared for Mass the public school auditorium they were using until a church could be built. Trying to make it as much like a church as he could, he provided a stand for the tabernacle and kneeling pads for the congregation. He also trained the altar boys-70 came to his funeral Mass. Bob remembers especially his flther’s humility. The teams he coached were very successful, “yet it was never about his record. It was always about the development of the boys as young Catholic athletes and their successes.” When his oldest son was ordained to the priesthood, “Dad went down on his knees before his son, asking for his blessing, addressing him as ‘Father.’This gave the rest of the seven sons a profound respect for the priesthood.”
He also remembers his father’s “unmatched” work ethic, which was an extension ofhis self-sacrifices and his humility. “We lived on a small farm, where he taught my brothers and me the importance ofhard work. We were continuously working with Dad to maintain the farm, tending to the farm animals, baling hay in the summer, chopping firewood in the winter.” The life of self-sacrifice, humility, and hard work are heroic enough-heroic enough for the world to notice. But this was not the main reason Thomas is a hero to his son. “Ultimately, Dad’s prayer life and attention to God’s will is the most searing example he left for me. The daily Rosary was a constant in our house. No matter what ball game or social event was going on, we did not go to sleep without first praying the family Rosary. Itwas Dad on his knees leading us every time.” His father also had an exemplary devotion to the Eucharist. “As a family we would attend a Holy Hour every Wednesday even though the church we were going to was an hour away. He made a weekly Holy Hour in the middle of the night and was also a daily communicant.”
It is this humility, prayerfulness, and self-sacrifice that made the people who knew him liken him to St. Joseph. And it was that life, far more than his final sacrifice, that made Thomas a hero. The Washington Post gave two stories to Thomas Vander Woude, a short news story and another, run on the front page, titled “Father Who Died Saving Son Known for Sacrifices.” The story listed all that he had done for others, for his family, his church, his friends and neighbors, the community.
The newspaper noted his Catholicism, but it didn’t tell the whole story. It left out the reason Bob’s father lived the sacrificial life he did. “Dad displayed the love that Christ speaks of in the Gospel in saying ‘No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for a friend.’ Itwas fitting that Dad should give his life for one ofhis sons, since he had already given so much of his life for us.”