In a word, Tom Duesterhaus is compassionate – toward his family, his community of Youth Apostles and the students he’s taught for the past 12 years at Bishop O’Connell High School.
Which is why finding out Friday his contract at his alma mater was not renewed, his father Rich Duesterhaus said, could have made him upset enough to leave the Northern Virginia area he’s called home for 35 years.
“It would have been decimating to him,” Rich Duesterhaus said Thursday night from his home. “He has a lifelong connection to that school. He may feel like he’s been abandoned. ... He would have been devastated.”
Tom, a 37-year-old Vienna native, He’s been spotted three times — once on Saturday and twice on Sunday — in the Virginia Beach area, but hasn’t appeared since.
Fairfax County Police are worried
Rich Duesterhaus wants his son to know he has a life much richer than just his job — and that his family wants him to come home.
“His life is much much more than just a teacher, although teaching is a very important profession,” Rich Duesterhaus said. “He has such tremendous gifts that he can contribute to this society and community, whether or not at that school or another school or in other places, we’ll help him get into another school and into other places, we’ll help him get into another position to continue the stellar contributions he's made in the last 15 years.”
'Something Was Wrong'
Rich Duesterhaus said when he found out Saturday morning Tom, the sixth of his eight children, never returned to the McLean home he shared with other Youth Apostle members the previous night, he knew something was amiss.
“We’ve been searching literally from that time on,” Duesterhaus said.
Though he has not received any comment from the school itself, Rich Duesterhaus said several people in its community have told him over the past five days that Tom's contract was not renewed.
Bishop O’Connell staff could not be reached at the time this story was published.
Around 6:15 a.m. Saturday, a North Carolina woman vacationing on Virginia Beach saw a man take off his shirt, shorts and socks and go swimming in the ocean, Duesterhaus said. When she returned to her porch, the man was gone, but his bag remained on the beach. When it was still there midday, the woman went with her husband to investigate. They found some of Tom’s property and reported it to Virginia Beach Police. When she returned home to North Carolina, she used the information she reported to police to search the Internet, and found Rich Duesterhaus.
It wasn’t unusual for Tom to be on the beach, his father said. As a graduate of the College of William and Mary, Tom found solace in the Virginia Beach area and often went there to clear his head. Tom was also scheduled to be at a four-day retreat starting Monday, so going down early, in a way, made sense.
But the bag the woman found didn’t have Tom’s credit card, keys or cell phone in it. Because Police have not found his car, Rich Duesterhaus believes his son may be sleeping in it on the road. Rich said his son’s credit card hasn’t been used to buy food or gas since he went missing; his cell phone hasn’t made or received any texts or calls, nor has he returned any from family.
On Sunday, Youth Apostles combed Virginia Beach, showing hundreds of people a poster with Tom’s picture on it. Rich Duesterhaus says they found two people who had seen Tom on Sunday — both times near homeless shelters.
“He oftentimes worked with service projects and taking kids to homeless shelters, “ Rich Duesterhaus said. “He might seek refuge that way himself.”
The last piece of information Rich Duesterhaus received is also the one that gives him the most hope: Though the Virginia Marine Resource Agency said there are often drownings at the beach, and that a strong rip tide passed through the area over the weekend, a body washes ashore within two days of a drowning in almost 100 percent of the drowning cases they see.
Five days later, and Tom’s body hasn’t washed ashore, Duesterhaus said.
“It might sound gory to you,” he said, “ but it makes me hopeful.”
'It’s just doesn’t make sense'
Tom Duesterhaus lived a simple life, his father said. He’s spent 15 years as a member of the McLean-based “Youth Apostles,” short for the Youth Apostles Institute, “a community of men who ... share a common call to youth ministry in the Catholic Church,” according to the group's website.
Some of the men are priests. But others, like Tom, had simply made a serious commitment to the church and brotherhood. He took consecrated vows, valued poverty, obedience and chastity, and had no resources or assets, Rich Duesterhaus said. He turned much of his paychecks from his teaching job over to the community he lived with.
At Bishop O’Connell, Duesterhaus is a mentor, “great” teacher and a friend to many students, said Carly Poppalardo ’05, who had him as an English teacher.
She described at times a little “out there."
"But at the same time he was a totally nice guy,” she said. “In my class alone he had a pretty good reputation.”
Rich Duesterhaus said some people may find his son unusual. He wore his hair long and often had a beard.
“He wouldn’t have a slick suit. He wouldn’t have the cleanest pressed shirt,” Duesterhaus said.
Still, the news Tom was missing rattled Poppalardo and her group of O’Connell friends.
“If I heard anyone else disappear, I’d probably think it was weird, but not that crazy,” she said. “But for someone like him ... to disappear, that raises a big red flag.”
'We Just Want Him To Come Home'
Rich Duesterhaus said its been hard for him and his seven other children not to know where Tom is, or have a way of reaching him.
But they want him to know they’ll help him make a home wherever home might be: in Virginia Beach. In Vienna. In McLean, or somewhere else entirely, Rich Duesterhaus said.
The son, brother, teacher and friend has too much to throw away, Duesterhaus said.
“He’s devoted his life to young people and he’s done an outstanding job if it. There’s more work to be done, and perhaps that’s done in a different role than the past 10 or 11 years, but he’s certainly welcome here by student, family, fellow workers, all the folks I’ve talked to over the past six days," Rich Duesterhaus said. "We’ll come meet him at any place to help work through any challenges he’s got.
Anyone with information should contact Detective Chris Flanagan at 703-246-7860 or the Fairfax County Police Department at 703-691-2131 or Crime Solvers at 1-866-411-TIPS.