Illustration by Anthony Cudahy
Illustration by Anthony Cudahy

The morning of Sept. 8, 2008, was like most mornings for Thomas S. Vander Woude, a former airline pilot who, in retirement, kept a farm in Nokesville, Virginia. He went to Mass, and then turned to the relentless demands of his 26 acres. By his side was his youngest son, Joseph, known as Josie, who was 20 at the time, and who had Down syndrome. Josie’s six older brothers had long ago moved out of the house, but Josie was his father’s inseparable companion.

While Thomas was working, Josie was off in a different part of the yard when a broken septic-tank cover gave way under his feet, and he slid in. Vander Woude, from a distance, saw his son fall. He understood right away that Josie was in mortal danger. The tank was 8 feet deep, and filled almost to the top with waste.

Vander Woude rushed to the hole, which measured 2 square feet. He reached down to grab his panicked son, but without success. A workman at the house saw what was happening and told Vander Woude’s wife, Mary Ellen, who called emergency services. The workman and Mary Ellen rushed outside to help. By then, Vander Woude had lowered himself into the tank. He treaded in the sewage in an attempt to keep Josie’s head above the water line, but Josie was still sinking.

A Deliberate Decision

So Thomas Vander Woude made a decision: He would hold his breath, dive under the sewage, and lift Josie onto his shoulders. When rescuers finally arrived, they pulled Josie out of the tank; he was alive. But Vander Woude, 66 years old, was dead.

He had made the deliberate decision to risk drowning in sewage in order to save the life of his child.

For a while, it wasn’t clear that Josie would survive, either. He was in a coma, on a ventilator, suffering from double pneumonia. But he lived. His oldest brother, who is also named Thomas, told me that the physicians treating Josie were stunned to see a person survive 20 minutes in a septic tank. “It is one of the many miracles we have experienced,” he said.

I first read about Thomas Vander Woude’s death in the Washington Post soon after he died, but this is the sort of story that stays with you. The hellishness of his final moments gives the story a kind of ghastly power. But there is also something opposite: an intimation of nobility, and a lesson about living.

Prism of Fatherhood

I understood the story of Vander Woude’s death through the prism of fatherhood. I tell myself, as I imagine most fathers do, that I would make any sacrifice, suffer any hardship or humiliation or pain, for my children. If a physician told me that one of them, God forbid, was seriously ill, and needed a new heart to live, I would offer mine without hesitation. I believe that every father I know would do the same. But, of course, most fathers never have to face a moment when they must choose between their lives and those of their children. If I were to face such a test, I believe I would pass, but perhaps I’m just flattering myself.

Another question arises from the story of Thomas Vander Woude, one which has to do not with his death, but with his life: How did he become the sort of man who could devise a plan to save his drowning son, and then carry out that plan, knowing all the while that it might mean his own death?

“If that was the only time Dad ever sacrificed for any of us, this would be a very sad story,” his son Thomas told me. “But his devotion to us was constant.”

Nature of Happiness

I met Thomas in the rectory of Queen of Apostles Catholic Church, in Alexandria, Virginia, where he’s a priest. Five of the Vander Woude brothers are married, and they have, among them, 28 children. Josie, who has fully recovered from his injuries, lives with his mother, Mary Ellen. (They just returned from Rome, where they attended the beatification of Pope John Paul II.) The Rev. Vander Woude, a placid man with a gentle smile, describes his father as someone who trained himself for virtue, and who possessed a crucial understanding -- one that is particularly rare in self-indulgent, self-actualizing America -- about the nature of happiness. He knew that joy is best found not in the pursuit of pleasure, but in the execution of responsibility.

Thomas Vander Woude Sr. was raised on a farm in South Dakota. As a young man, he joined the Navy, and was a pilot in the Vietnam War. After 16 years, he left the Navy to become a commercial-airline pilot, and for many years he flew the Washington to New York shuttle. But mainly he was a pious and committed Catholic, who attended Mass every day, who provided for the poor, and who knew, as his son describes it, that God meant for him to live for his family.

A Father’s Love

“A father puts others ahead of himself,” the Rev. Vander Woude said. “That was his belief. He never said that. He just did it. He loved being a husband and being a father. Pride, pleasure and possessions are where people go for happiness. But my father first thought of God, and the devotion to the family, the love, comes naturally from that.”

The Vander Woude sons loved sports, and so their father became the coach of their teams. He arranged his flying schedule, his entire life, so that he could be present in the lives of his sons. “There’s no doubt in our minds, ever, what his priority was,” another of his sons, Chris, told me. “He knew what God wanted of him, and God wanted him to be a father.”

A Gift from God

Thomas and Mary Ellen considered Josie, in particular, to be a gift from God. About 90 percent of Down syndrome babies are aborted these days. This option wasn’t even a theoretical possibility for the couple. “My mother was in her 40s when she had Josie, but she didn’t have amniocentesis, because there was never a question of not having the baby,” the Rev. Vander Woude said.

The Vander Woudes weren’t plaster saints. Chris Vander Woude, who is the athletic director at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, said that Josie caused his parents worries and frustrations. But they never saw their youngest son as a burden. “From the get-go, there was a lot of time and energy focused on him, but my parents knew that it was their role to love him, like they loved all of us. The truth is, someone with Down syndrome is easier to love in a lot of ways, because they’re so loving, because they assume the best about people. But that didn’t matter. He was my father’s son, and that’s all the reason my father needed to love him.”

Ultimate Responsibility

He went on, “We believe providentially that when Joseph was born, that was the beginning of a process that would lead Dad to perform his ultimate responsibility.”

I’m reasonably sure an atheist would sacrifice his life for his child. But I also don’t doubt that Thomas Vander Woude’s powerful faith cleared the path into the tank. A person who has an articulated calling, who believes in something larger than himself, could more immediately accept the gravity of the moment.

“He went down there in peace,” the Rev. Vander Woude said. “This is what he did. This is who he was. This was where his life was taking him.”

I asked him to recall an image of his father at his happiest. He told me of a family vacation, children and grandchildren together, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They assigned a theme to each night of the trip. One night was devoted to Tex-Mex food and country music. Josie, he said, is a big country-music fan.

“What I remember is that Dad would dance with all his granddaughters. That was just joy for him.”

A Secret

There’s a little secret about Father’s Day that I think a lot of fathers understand, and that our children don’t. As much as I love oddly shaped pancakes, and new grill mitts, and the chance to sleep for an extra half-hour, it is all so unnecessary. The joy of Father’s Day is the joy of every day: the gift of being in the company of your children, and of living for them in the way you are meant to live, in the way that Thomas Vander Woude lived, for all of his sons.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.