This monthly column is devoted to examining the role of the Catholic father, and how we fathers can better live our calling. Mostly, it has been about theory.
This time, it is about practice.
About ten years ago, I met with one of the Hawthorne Sisters, a group of Catholic sisters who have been providing hospice care to the dying for generations. As we spoke, I commented to the sister that it must be depressing at times to be in the midst of so much death, and wondered how people spent their last moments on earth. Her comment to me was simple and profound: she said: “people die as they have lived.”
Thomas Vander Woude, who was the first director of Seton Home Study School, spent sixty-six years showing those around him how to live, and on September 8th, 2008, he showed us how to die.
On September 8th, 2008, Mr. Vander Woude’s twenty-year-old son Joseph (who has Downs Syndrome, and is the youngest of seven boys), fell through a septic field cover into a deep tank which was almost full. Seeing what had happened, Thomas ran toward the opening and tried to pull his son out of the tank from the top. Quickly realizing that pulling Joseph out was impossible, Thomas then climbed down into the tank himself, through the mucky water, past his son, and lifted his son up so he could breathe, until help arrived fifteen minutes later. Mr. Vander Woude was able to save Joseph; however, due to methane gas poisoning, Thomas was pronounced dead moments later.
The worldwide response to this story has been overwhelming. His Requiem was attended by over two thousand people, seventy priests, and about one hundred altar boys. Mr. Vander Woude’s heroic actions have been talked about on the floor of the U.S. Senate, preached about in churches all over the world, and written about in newspapers in a number of countries.
Father George Rutler wrote a book a few years ago called A Crisis of Saints— lamenting the fact that so few saints are in our midst. I’ve no reason to doubt him, but his comment makes me recognize that I’ve been graced in my life to know men and women who love Christ so much and so well, and certainly Thomas Vander Woude was one.
Mr. Vander Woude was an extremely accomplished man: he was a Vietnam veteran, a pilot, an educator, a sacristan, and a coach. But it was his final act of heroism that defined him as a husband and father. In the end, Thomas Vander Woude heroically gave his life to save his son—but he’d been doing that his entire life. To honor him properly, we must recognize that his heroism didn’t start on September 8th—it simply reached its high point that day. His life and death also go to illustrate something that men often forget: the daily practice of authentic fatherhood is heroic.
Mere fatherhood is enough.
In the weeks, months, and years that follow, people who knew Thomas will relate incidents about how he affected their lives: the families he sacrificed for, the churches he volunteered for, and the players he coached will come forward with stories about the impact Thomas had for them. If the reader will indulge me, I have one myself.
I met Thomas Vander Woude twenty years ago, but did not really know him until about four years ago. He served as the athletic director at Christendom College for five years, and four years ago, he made it known that he was looking for a coach for the Christendom baseball team. Although I’ve never been good at playing baseball myself, I’ve always been passionate about baseball, and had coached my sons in Little League for two or three years. When I heard there was a job opening, I sent Mr. Vander Woude a letter explaining to him that I’d like the job. What I didn’t tell him was that it was my dream job. Coaching my alma mater’s team in my favorite sport—what could be better than that? However, the reasons not to hire me were obvious—starting with the fact that I’d never coached anyone over ten years old.
A few days later, Mr. Vander Woude called to tell me that he had picked me to coach the Christendom team. I will always remember that phone call. Although I was happy with his choice, I expressed some surprise that he had picked me because of my obvious lack of experience. But Mr. Vander Woude didn’t allow me to doubt myself; rather than harp on what I hadn’t accomplished, Mr. Vander Woude insisted that I recognize the things that I had accomplished. He believed in me—he made me believe I was better at coaching than I was. I think he believed that if he expressed confidence in me, sooner or later, I’d grow into it.
It’s only really been now, after his passing, that I realize what he was doing—he was coaching me how to be a better coach, and ultimately, how to be a better father. I realized through his instruction that coaching is so much like fathering. And it wasn’t only what he did say to guide others—it’s what he didn’t say: he never referenced his achievements to make a point, which he very easily could have done. In the two years I coached under him, he never questioned a decision of mine—and he easily could have.
He also did everything within his power to help others succeed. Working within the confines of a small Catholic college and a budget to match, the problem was how to practice—no baseball field, no batting cage, not much of anything. But he was determined to help us succeed. We couldn’t afford to buy a batting cage, so he designed a batting cage for us, drove to the hardware store to buy the parts, and after coaching his last basketball game of the season, after the players left, he stayed in the gym and built the cage with us.
In my rookie game as the coach, to the surprise of almost everyone (including me), we won by beating a school about three times larger than Christendom. I remember calling Mr. Vander Woude afterward to tell him we had won. When we spoke, his voice was elated. And yet, he didn’t seem surprised—he almost expected our achievements.
I think he cared about sports because he recognized that sports provided a proving ground for men—it was a place for men to have a chance to excel, and to have a chance to fail. Coaching at Christendom was not about success (although he had his share of those); it was more about how to fail, and get back up. I think he believed that sports served as a microcosm of the Christian life—it’s not so much the batting average that matters, it’s how many times you step into the batter’s box.
Mr. Vander Woude and I spoke about two weeks before the accident, and, as usual, we talked about sports, we talked about fatherhood, but I never got the chance to tell him something that I always meant to: any man who has sons like his, must be a great father.
It’s always difficult to write about someone who has profoundly affected your life. I need an angelic vocabulary, because words like “heroic,” and “valor” don’t suffice. Maybe the best way to express my thoughts and gratitude are these: I’ll be a better coach because I knew him. I’ll be a better father because I knew him.
Maybe that’s the highest tribute I can pay.