Last week was the one-year anniversary of the death of a remarkable man. Remarkable in the sense that his life and death are worthy of being remarked upon. That man was Thomas Vander Woude, who died in Virginia on September 8, 2008.
Mr. Vander Woude, a retired airline pilot, was tending to his small farm when his youngest son, Joseph, fell through the cover of a septic tank. Joseph, 20 years old at the time of the accident, is the youngest of seven brothers, and he happens to have Down Syndrome. Mr. Vander Woude jumped into the tank to save his son. It is reported that his last words, spoken to a hired hand, were, “You pull, I’ll push.” Joseph was saved, and spent five days recovering in the hospital. Thomas was lost, his life sacrificed for that of his son.
What became obvious in the days following Thomas Vander Woude’s death was that he died as he had lived. In life, he embodied many of the ideals of the loving husband and father. He was able to die well because he had lived well.
His oldest son, a priest for the Diocese of Arlington, VA, was a guest on EWTN’s Life on the Rock last week. He noted that his father would have been mortified by all of the attention being paid to him. He also noted that his dad would have been among the first to note his own faults. And yet, he remains an individual who embraced and lived out his Catholic faith to the fullest. As a husband and a father, he provides a role model for the rest of us to emulate.
At one point in the program, a viewer asks Fr. Vander Woude via email, “I would imagine your father’s glorious death was the crown of his spiritual journey. Can you mention some of the times you noticed your father’s growth in sanctity and in what ways he acted in accord with Our Lord’s grace in order to grow over the years?” Fr. Vander Woude responded, “Definitely. My dad’s life was a very joyful life, but as he grew and got older it was definitely a balance in life as far as the joys and being able to be patient with the inconveniences of life, and whatnot. And so I definitely saw that. And to the point that with my youngest brother, Joesph, doing things that, ultimately you have to laugh. He keeps reminding you of what is most important in life, and that’s what I saw in a particular way with my own dad (and mother). These little things that people oftentimes get upset about, inconveniences around the house – nah.”
At this point, Fr. Mark, who co-hosts the program with Doug Barry interjected, “I’ve heard that so many times from parents of a child who has Down Syndrome or something like that, that it really helps them to shake up their priorities and focus on what’s really important.” To which Fr. Vander Woude added, “And there’s a lot of joy in that as well, and being able to – now it’s just more of a focus out of self. Pope John Paul used to talk a lot about total self-giving. There’s joy in that.”
The audio from the September 10 episode of Life on the Rock is available in the audio library section of the EWTN website. Fr. Roger Landry wrote an excellent account of the life and death of Tom Vander Woude.