“You pull — I’ll push”: Tom Vander Woude’s Legacy

This Sept. 8 and Sept. 15 — the Nativity of Mary and Our Lady of Sorrows — are the 10th anniversary of the death and Memorial Mass for Tom Vander Woude of Manassas, Va. This article was published in the National Catholic Register after his death.

“You pull. I’ll push.”

That was all he could manage in the circumstances, perhaps, but even in those few words, you can see a way of life.

It was, in my opinion, the most inspiring story the Register published in 2008. Thomas Vander Woude, 66, said those words on his Virginia farm from inside a septic tank where his son had fallen. He was calling to a neighbor who was helping heave his son, Joseph Vander Woude, an 18-year-old with Down syndrome, to safety, out in the fresh air, saving his life.

He said those four words and couldn’t say anything else. He passed out and then drowned.

“You pull. I’ll push.” I’ll do this hard thing, this sacrificial thing, and you help me, and then we both will have done it. That was how Tom Vander Woude lived his life.

For 10 years, he coached his sons in basketball at Seton School in Manassas, Va. He didn’t just coach for the love of sports, either. His son Dan told the Register, “He didn’t know soccer, but there was a need, so he went to coaching clinics to learn that.”

“He never took a cent for it,” said the school’s director, Anne Carroll. Vander Woude was a successful coach who won games. But more than that, “He was a mentor,” she said. “He wanted them to be good young men, not just good players.”

He challenged the kids; they responded with enthusiasm. One dad wrote online: “He coached my youngest son in JV basketball at Seton last year. He was a great coach. In every game he could, he would put my son in during the last minute of the game so he could know the joy of playing on a team and being cheered by the crowd.”

He pushed. They pulled.

His friends saw the same thing in him. “He’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back,” his neighbor Lee DeBrish told The Washington Post. “And if he didn’t have one, he’d buy one for you.”

“When my wife and I got married, we were trying to buy a townhouse,” Peter Scheetz told the Post. “We didn’t have any credit. … Tom Vander Woude ended up cosigning our loan for our first house.”

When people needed a boost, he gave it to them. Then they could take the next step. “When others asked about the secrets of success for raising Catholic families, he was always quick to point to the family Rosary,” said Dan. “He was definitely devoted to Our Lady.”

But not just that. “He also did a Holy Hour between two and three in the morning and was a daily communicant. With the Rosary, he used to say a prayer to St. Joseph,” said Dan. “Those were the things in front of us that we saw of our father. In this culture, which is selling a lot of stuff, I had a father on his knees who was showing me how to be a man of God.”

In other words, every day, Tom Vander Woude asked Mary to be with his family, “now, and at the hour of our death.” And every day, he went where she sent him — to her Son, in the Eucharist. The hour of his death came, appropriately enough, on Sept. 8, Mary’s birthday. His memorial Mass was seven days later on Sept. 15, the feast of the Mother of Sorrows.

He pushed. She pulled.

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

I have. Hardly a day has gone by since September when his example hasn’t been on my mind — or when I haven’t been presented an opportunity to follow it. When I’m tempted to cut corners with my own seven children or my own spiritual life, I actually find myself thinking, “That won’t make me more like Tom Vander Woude.” Then I do the harder thing.

Mr. Vander Woude, thanks for the push.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.