By Kathleen Gilbert

NOKESVILLE, VA, September 12, 2008 (LifeSiteNews.com) - In a moving example of paternal love and sacrifice, a man drowned earlier this week after attempting to save his disabled son, who had fallen into a septic tank on the family’s Virginia property.

66-year-old Thomas VanderWoude and his 20-year-old son Joseph, who has Down syndrome and who is the youngest of seven sons, were working in their yard in Nokesville, VA when Joseph fell through a septic tank cover that had suddenly collapsed.  VanderWoude immediately jumped in after his son and managed to hold his son’s head above the surface, saving his life.

By the time two men finally pulled Thomas out of the tank, he had been underwater for as long as 20 minutes. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. 

VanderWoude’s son Joseph was in critical condition at Prince William hospital as he fought infection for several days, but recently began to improve.

News of VanderWoude’s death devastated the Prince William County community, where he was widely known as a devoted Catholic father and excellent coach. 

A retired Navy pilot and Vietnam veteran who was still "in great shape," VanderWoude coached basketball and soccer at Seton School in Manassas and, until recently, when one of his sons took over the job, served as athletic director at Christendom College in Front Royal.  Anne Carroll, Director of Seton School and longtime friend of the VanderWoudes, said the sacrifice Tom made for his son matched his reputation for generosity. 

"He died as he lived. Anyone you talk with will say he was always there to help," said Carroll.

President of Christendom College Dr. Timothy O’Donnell attributed the bravery of VanderWoude, a Catholic who attended Mass daily, in part to his intense faith.  In an interview with LifeSiteNews O’Donnell recalled the gospel reading of the day following the incident to explain how VanderWoude’s extraordinary sacrifice was entirely of a piece with his vibrant faith.  The gospel recounted the names of the twelve Apostles whom, O’Donnell says, the world remembers today precisely "because they gave their life for Jesus Christ."

"And that is exactly what Tom VanderWoude did.  It was a heroic death," said O’Donnell.  He also notes that VanderWoude died on the feast of the birthday of Mary, to whom VanderWoude always had "an intense devotion."

Friends say that father and son had always been very close.  "They really were inseparable," noted O’Donnell.

One Christendom College alumna, Adrienne Smith, recalled the father’s clear affection for his son, despite VanderWoude’s "tough" reputation. "Always at his side was his youngest son, disabled by Down’s syndrome," said Smith. "This man went everywhere with his son, letting him ramble around campus and make new friends. He always knew what his son was doing and where he was going.

"Oftentimes I would see these two, walking and talking as if there were nothing else in the world. I noticed his face was lit up each time his son was rattling about his thoughts. He loved his son dearly."

To donate to Thomas VanderWoude’s memorial fund to help wife Mrs. Mary Ellen VanderWoude and son Joseph, send checks made out to the "VanderWoude Trust Fund" to:

Holy Trinity Parish
  8213 Linton Hall Road
  Gainesville, VA 20155