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Father Who Saved Son Is Remembered For Generosity

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 16, 2008; Page B01

Thomas S. Vander Woude would never have wanted a big display in his honor. The Nokesville father of seven sons, who drowned last week while rescuing his disabled son when he fell into the family's septic tank, was more the type to try to elevate the lives of those around him, his family members and friends said.

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But yesterday, more than 2,000 people packed the pews at Holy Trinity Catholic Church for his funeral Mass in Gainesville, some listening from the vestibule, others down a hallway watching on closed-circuit television. Among the attendees were his wife of 43 years, Mary Ellen, more than 70 priests, including the bishop of Arlington, and the friends accrued over decades who came to pay respects to a man who inspired them, right up until his final breath.

If Vander Woude saw the throng, he'd say, "Are you kidding me? . . . Don't waste your gas," said one of his sons, Steve Vander Woude of Nokesville, after the service. But "this guy did something saintly, and they wanted to come be a part of it."

Thomas S. Vander Woude, 66, died last week while helping his son Joseph, who has Down syndrome, after he fell into a septic tank while working in the yard, police said. The tank was eight to 10 feet deep, Steve Vander Woude said.

His father climbed into the 2-by-2-foot opening, managed to get under Joseph and was pushing him upward to keep his head above the sewage. Initially, Vander Woude was able to keep his own head above the muck, telling a workman who was helping from above, "You pull, I'll push," Steve Vander Woude said. But he eventually sank and was later pulled out by rescue workers, who were unable to revive him, Prince William County police said.

Joseph, 20, was hospitalized last week with pneumonia but was released Saturday and attended the Mass for his father in a wheelchair, connected to an oxygen tank. His family said doctors expect a full recovery. A few days after his father's death, Joseph's family sat with him in the hospital and explained to him that his father had died.

Upon hearing the news, Joseph "sat back . . . he closed his eyes, his chin quivered, and he started crying," Steve Vander Woude said. "I think he understands as much as he can right now."

Another of Thomas S. Vander Woude's sons, Tom Vander Woude, pastor at Queen of Apostles Catholic Church in Alexandria, gave the homily. In it, he likened his father to Saint Joseph, a man who patiently and quietly supported his family, did odd jobs for those in need and was content to worship God and not seek the limelight, Tom Vander Woude said.

At a reception at Seton School in Manassas, where six of Thomas S. Vander Woude's sons went to school, friends and neighbors traded stories about how Vander Woude had gone out of his way to help them. Fittingly, Tom Vander Woude observed, they were standing on the gym floor that his father had installed.

Mary Heisler, 36, of Nokesville, said she never would have come to Virginia as a teenager, let alone met her future husband, if it had not been for Vander Woude. She was receiving Catholic home schooling in Texas when Vander Woude, who was helping with the home-schooling program at Seton, contacted her father and persuaded him to move 14-year-old Mary and her 11 siblings to Virginia to attend the school.

Her father obliged, sold the house, bought a yellow school bus and drove his family to Prince William County. Money was tight, so Vander Woude took the family into his home for a month before lending them money for a down payment on a house of their own in Manassas, Heisler said.

"He gave us half the home," said Heisler, who met her husband, Tim, at Seton. "I don't think he realized how many people he impacted."

Peter Scheetz, assistant director at Seton, recalled a similar kindness.

"When my wife and I got married, we were trying to buy a townhouse," Scheetz said. "We didn't have any credit. . . . Tom Vander Woude ended up co-signing our loan for our first house."

There were many similar stories about Vander Woude, who served as a pilot during the Vietnam War, a commercial pilot after he returned home and a longtime volunteer coach.

His dying act was, "truly saintly" and "the crown of a whole life of self-giving," Bishop Paul S. Loverde said at the Mass. "May we find in his life inspiration and strength."


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