Dan VanMeter mourned: ‘As they learn and grow, he won’t be a part of it’

Dan and Kristie VanMeter walk at Roaring Point with their children, Julia, left, and Ben. Dan VanMeter died last week after a long battle with colon cancer.

There were moments so touching when Dan VanMeter was dying that they were excruciating — his 11-year-old son sleeping beside him, his 9-year-old daughter gently stroking his cheek, his wife grasping his hand, telling him how much she loved him.

Once, as he lay in bed, weak and emotional, he said he saw angels and pointed toward the ceiling.

 Forty-five years old, forced to retire as a Salisbury University Police Officer, knowing his life was ending, fighting a valiant battle, he began to cry and the little girl, in a tender moment, told him, “Daddy, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.”

 A year earlier, after suffering severe back pain, he was eventually diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.

“Our lives were rewritten,” his wife, Kristina Toadvine VanMeter, said in a brave, but sometimes emotional conversation last week. “It was inoperable. He had several chemos to become operable but it was confirmed that it went to his spine the end of 2017. He started chemo the first day the kids went into school and the last day of school this year was the first day of hospice,” she said.

Their children, Ben and Julia, are in sixth and third grades.

“He fought so hard,” his wife said about the man she married 15 years ago, a truly dedicated family man.

In hospice, young Ben lay with his father.

“He’s a very tender child. He likes to be physical. But Dan’s bones hurt so bad he couldn’t really hug him. Ben never left his side. Even when he died, Ben was over his body,” she said.

In June, a doctor told the couple chemotherapy wouldn’t help anymore and in fact was hurting him.

“He didn’t want to go to hospice. He put it off for a couple weeks. He said, ‘That’s not what I want,’” she recalled.

While most doctors tried to insist, one respected his wishes and said they would work on strengthening and nourishing him.

“For two weeks, he tried to eat but he was so thin. He was malnourished,” his wife said.

Eventually, he accepted hospice.

“He was in hospice care for 20 or 21 days. He had no food or water for 11 days, but he held on. The kids would go in and say goodbye and say their ‘I love yous.’ It happened over and over. It was exhausting. His mother never left his side and I was by his side, too. He stopped talking for a while but he could still communicate with us with eyebrow movements,” she said.

Officers at the SU Police Department have shrouded their badges with a black cuff, as have some Fruitland Police officers who knew him well.

“It was an honor to work with him from April of 2009, when I began employment at SU, until his retirement,” said William “Woody” Woodward, a fellow SU officer.

“VanMeter was extraordinary and I couldn’t find a more suitable way to express that if I tried. In police work, there are many stressors and experiences that vary significantly and at times without notice. I would rarely see VanMeter display himself in any manner other than a professional and compassionate manner toward co-workers, whether they be new employees or seasoned and time-tested officers.

Welcoming demeanor

“I recently had a newer employee at SUPD tell me that VanMeter was one of the first officers to actually approach him and extend a welcoming greeting and offer any assistance along the way to him. Not as officers, but as human beings, we often get caught up in life, tasks, you name it.

“VanMeter always seemed to have a good grasp on reaching out to anyone and everyone, taking the time to reach out and show that he recognized them and would always be available as a resource but most of all as a friend,” Woodward said.

“You can tell a lot about an officer by walking in a police locker room. Many have duty bags, vests, shoes hanging or laying next to their assigned area. Many have inside jokes or quotes stuck to their locker.

“Whenever I saw VanMeter come to work, he would begin and end his shift at his locker, preparing to begin or end the tour of duty. On his locker, there were no jokes, no items hanging or laying around. On VanMeter’s locker there was only one non-family related item — a Seattle Seahawks football sticker. The remaining items on VanMeter’s locker were photos of his children and family,” Woodward said.

Services set July 24

A memorial service is planned for 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 24, at Christ United Methodist Church on Phillip Morris Drive, with a visitation period for family at 3:45 p.m. A reception will follow, immediately after, at the church.

Instead of flowers, the family is accepting contributions to the Dan VanMeter Memorial account for his children, established at the Bank Of America. Donate to Account No. 4460 4130 6877 or transfer using BOA’s Zelle App.

VanMeter received two Chief Awards and was also presented with the 2014 MADD award and 2015 Substance Abuse Reduction Award, among many training and certifications. Upon his retirement in October, he was given a citation from the governor’s office and flag that flew over the Capitol Building, plus another from the SU Police Department chief and officers.

His badge number, 121, was retired.

“He took his role as the department’s crime scene technician seriously. He also trained many new police officers throughout his tenure of 16 years there,” his wife said.

VanMeter, who lived in Hebron, died on July 2, with his family kissing him and telling him how lovingly they held him in their hearts.

He’s survived by his mother, Kay Danielle Senkbeil, and husband Michael of Salisbury; father, Roger Dale VanMeter, and wife Angelique of Delmar; sister Carolyn Dawn Wright, and husband Eric of Hebron; father-in-law, Mel James Toadvine, and wife Barbara Wharton Toadvine of Lehigh Acres, Fla.; brother-in-law David W. Toadvine, and wife Laura of Fort Myers, Fla.; nieces Claire and Sarah Wright and Brianna Toadvine and nephews Joshua and Noah Toadvine and Nicholas Wright.

Ben VanMeter, left, and Julia VanMeter, right, explode with laughter when their dad, Dan VanMeter, gets a pie in the face.

“It was clear that when VanMeter was absent from his family for his tour of duty, that he started and ended each shift looking at what always meant most to him, Kristina, Ben and Julia,” Woodward said, referring to the photos he kept in his locker.

“He was a police officer, but he was a father first,” his wife said.

“His department would tell you that. He worked his way up to sergeant. He was one of the best supervisors they ever worked for. He was empathetic and he was one who cared about the people. He was a leader. When he would come home, the uniform would come off. You would not think that was his profession. He was quiet but everything he did he was like a family man,” she said.

First symptoms

“When this first started, he had no symptoms except back pain. That started in the end of 2016, early ’17,” his wife said.

“He had lower back pain. Many police officers have back pain or a bulging disc. If he had symptoms we missed them. There were no traditional symptoms but there are often no symptoms with colon cancer.

“We went through trying to figure out how to work out the issues with his back. He didn’t like to go to doctors. I was trying to get him to have an MRI but he wanted to go to a chiropractor. He wore a duty belt and that contributed to the pain. We finally went to different doctors and that ultimately led to a full body scan. The biopsy showed cancer of another source. So we knew we were dealing with Stage IV,” she said.

As he withstood several bouts of chemotherapy, radiation and immune therapy in a clinical trial, his wife researched and talked to people in support groups whose loved ones had the same kind of disease, people from the United States as well as countries including Australia and Canada.

 They stayed close and formed a bond. Five support group members lost their husbands last week. “It’s absolutely insane,” Kristi VanMeter said.

 “Having community and reaching out and being connected, I’ve been able to learn a lot. I’ve talked to a leading scientist in this field,” she said.

 “I kind of knew everything that was going to happen. Dan just relied on me to do the information gathering. I have to plan and know so I tried to use all my resources to find the best path for him so we could leave no stone unturned. I knew in April we were basically coming to the end of the time. We had to make the decision of having to let go of that and change gears to keeping him as comfortable as possible,” she said.

She has become a proponent for colon cancer screening at a younger age than 50, as is the standard recommendation.

“It has to be changed. The last 20 years, research on colon cancer has come down as a younger disease now. I have talked to people with 17-year-old children, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who have colon cancer. It is definitely becoming an epidemic. They are now recommending screening at 45 and not 50,” she said.

First date

Kristi Toadvine and Dan VanMeter met in 1997, when she was a student at Salisbury University, working in the Occasions Unlimited kiosk in the Centre at Salisbury. He was going to school at Wor-Wic Community College and working full time in mall security.

“It was just like the movie Mall Cop with Kevin James. He was the mall cop and he was kind of flirting with the girl who worked in the kiosk in the mall,” she said.

“He was four years older than I was. I was in the center of the mall, in the kiosk, within eyeshot of Mall Security. He was always so kind. He offered to walk me out to my car. He took out the trash,” she recalled.

One conversation turned to her passion for theater and he said he had never seen a theatrical performance.

“To me that was incredible. Like, where have you been? What hole have you been in your whole life that you haven’t been cultured?” she said, laughing at the memory.

“I said, ‘We’ll have to do something about that.’ A couple days later he came back. He said, ‘When you said that, were you leading up to something?’ I said, ‘I have a couple tickets to Loot.’ That was our first date. It took him to see a show. I thought he was charming. He was someone you could trust,” she said.

They were married in 2003.

 Somehow, she found the fortitude to withstand his pain and death, while creating memories with the children.

 They placed Uno cards in his hands so they could play a game with him, listened to music he liked, made videos and created a plaster cast of their four hands.

 “Strong is the only thing I can be. We made some beautiful memories,” she said, recalling her husband liked country music in his younger years, and Top 40 and rock ’n roll later.

 “He had a very quiet strength about him. He got along well with my girlfriends. He was very nurturing to the kids. That’s going to be the hardest thing, moving forward and to not have someone to back you up. He was the only other person on earth that knew the children, knew what they were going through and what they needed before they even knew,” she said, her voice breaking.

Dan VanMeter with his wife and son on the occasion of his medical retirement as a Police Officer at Salisbury University.

“The hardest part for me is, as they learn and grow, he won’t be a part of it,” she said.

Benjamin and Julia have been keeping busy since their father’s death.

“It hasn’t set in yet. My daughter copes very well. She likes to write and she is able to express herself in a very mature way. In the journal she wrote in school she wrote, ‘My father won’t be walking me down the aisle when I get married,’” her mother said.

 “He touched a lot of lives through his work and the kids being so active. He was active with Boy Scouts. He graduated from the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy,” she said about her husband.

 Dan was a native of Delmar who was born in Germany to military parents and graduated from James M. Bennett High School.

“He always had a chuckle. He had a twinkle in his eye. He loved to talk to people. He was Ben and Julia’s dad who went to school to do a dissection. He showed up for Field Day.

“One things was, the cancer was a terrible thing, just terrible. But it let him be home with the kids. When Ben got off the bus, Dad was there.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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