Mr. Vander Woude died September 8, 2008, in a successful effort to save his son Joseph. The following is a tribute written last year by alumnus and long-time Seton teacher Tim Heisler for Seton’s school newspaper.
We are all Better. Thank you, Mr. VW.
“Mr. Vander Woude is a great man.” So I have heard, but what does it mean? Obviously, it does not mean being rich or famous, and I don’t recall Mr. Vander Woude being the life of the party either.
Yet he is truly a great man. So much so, that I am both honored and humbled to write this article. “Lord, I am not worthy…” came to my mind as I sat at my computer.
Greatness – in this year of St. Paul, it is appropriate to look to him for the answer. He tells us that the great men of the Old Testament, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Moses were great because they were faithful.
One particularly great man from the New Testament was neither rich nor famous, and, from his “biblical silence”, it is safe to assume he was not the life of the party either. But, we are told, St Joseph was an upright, or righteous, man, thus a man of deep faith.
Mr. Vander Woude let me borrow his chainsaw….twice. And I broke it….twice. Eventually, I bought him a new one. It was the least I could do. After all, he had put in my sewer line; helped me spread hay (which he had given me) around my yard so I could pass inspection; laid the pipe connecting the well to the plumbing; and saved our basement from flooding.
So buying him a new one seemed appropriate. He thanked me with such sincerity that at the moment I thought I was truly doing something charitable, or at least something beyond the minimum required. Then he told me he was still going to fix the old one. I asked him why. After all, now he had a brand new one.
That old chainsaw, he answered, was his favorite; it had been a gift from his son Steve.
Tom Vander Woude is a great man.
I also bought myself a chainsaw, embarrassed at the prospect of breaking his a third time. Within two weeks this new saw no longer worked. Mr. Vander Woude came over once again. He finally asked, as Josey hopped out of the pickup to play basketball with my kids, how I had been cutting down the trees. After I told him, he patiently explained that chainsaws were not meant to cut through dirt: a revelation. Then he gave me a course on sharpening the chain, which had grown inexplicably dull.
You may ask, “Why should we care about a chainsaw?” The answer is that he did care. I was no close friend who had helped him through thick and thin. No, I was someone who needed help, and he cared, somehow managing to neglect none of his other duties.
How did he do that? Faith.
Mr. Vander Woude had a St. Joseph-like faith. In writing this, I thought it important to avoid hyperbole. We have heard of the heroism of his dying, so the tendency to exaggerate our experiences with him while he was still alive is indeed a temptation.
But I am reminded of Out of the Silent Planet, by CS Lewis. In his book, there is a scene in which a portrait of Ransom the main character, is being drawn. The portrait, however, is not quite true to life. When asked why, the artist responds that if it were, generations later, nobody would believe it.
Such is the case with Mr. Vander Woude. We read the articles in the newspapers and see the specials on TV, and years from now people are sure to question their veracity. “This man could not have been,” they will say, “for such people do not exist.”
So, why the chainsaw? Surely some religious subject would have been more fitting. Training altar boys was on of his many duties at Holy Trinity; in fact, he convinced my sons to become altar servers. He was a daily communicant. A story about preparing the Brentsville gym or Linton Hall’s chapel for Mass seems called for.
If not religious, perhaps one of the many stories recounting the substantial, life-changing help he gave people he barely knew, such as allowing my present in-laws to live in his house for a month – all 14 of them, the oldest seven of whom were girls….there’s true courage!
Certainly that surpasses a chainsaw story. Or what about Seton? After all, he helped immensely, from coaching basketball (where he played everyone on the team, including me, in every game…and we still managed to go 20 and 5 that year), to helping lay the gym floor, to myriad other selfless acts. And yet none of these was my focus.
The reason is this: we all have different stories; mine are of no more value than yours. But each unique story seems to revolve around the same thought: Tom Vander Woude lived his faith. He did do great things with great love, but if we only remember the great things, it can be easy to forget that he did small things with great love as well – fixing chainsaws, for example.
And therein lies his greatness, the greatness of faith. True faith manifests itself through charity, and that is the force that moves the biblical mountain.
Simply put, I am a better person for having known Mr. Vander Woude; Seton is a better place for having known Mr. Vander Woude; and anyone anywhere who ever knew Mr. Vander Woude, that is, who ever experienced the man, however briefly, to truly know him, is a better person for it.
And that is no hyperbole.