Moving on, the Vanaman Way
By Rose Quinn
Standout student-athlete Matt Vanaman, 18, graduated from St. Augustine Preparatory School in May, an exciting new world of playing NCAA Division 1 lacrosse for Robert Morris University now only a couple months away.
Joining Matt, an aspiring business major, on stage to present his high school diploma was his brother and fellow Hermits alum, 21-year-old Mikey. A rising senior business major at Cabrini University, Mikey is another stellar lacrosse player, named last season’s MVP of the Atlantic East Tournament, as well as the 2022 Player of the Year for the Atlantic East Conference and a United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association All-American honorable mention.
For the siblings and their mother, Laurie, Matt’s graduation and all its traditions was a proud but bittersweet milestone. It combined a few of the many life lessons both Mikey and Matt learned about allegiance, grit and resilience from their father, their biggest fan on and off the lacrosse fields, into a single moment.
The late Robert “Bob” Vanaman III was all about family, making memories together and with friends. His lasting credo: Love and support one another. Strive to learn and grow, individually and with others. Work hard, but always have time to play. Win or lose, at lacrosse or in the game of daily life, be gracious. Be the best you can be.
Bob’s death from an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer 16 months ago left an overwhelming hole in his family. Not a single day passes that he is not in Laura, Mikey and Matt’s thoughts as they move on the best and only way they know – “the Vanaman way,” as coined by family friend Christopher Tinari in his eulogy for Bob.
In many ways, Mikey and Matt feel that their father, who passed at age 47, prepared them, unknowingly but meticulously, for life without him.
“We say it all the time,” said Mikey.
From the New Jersey beaches where Bob, a competitive surfer, taught his sons as young boys to ride the waves. To the lacrosse fields, where the football-loving father learned and even practiced an unfamiliar sport, just to advance his sons’ games.
“Lacrosse was something we bonded over, and a lot of life lessons were learned there. The same with surfing,” Mikey said. “We learned how to conduct ourselves as a person. You take the wins, but you also take the losses without sulking, congratulating the winner, and move on. That’s a good lesson in life.”
As the Vanamans continue to heal, little by little, they have each other.
Mikey and Matt’s No. 1 priority is taking care of their mom, a nurse whom they fondly refer to as “the general.” They know it’s something their father wanted without ever having to ask.
Throughout 29 years as a couple, all but seven as husband and wife, Bob and Laura Vanaman became a force that Mikey and Matt admired and respected.
“She is the strongest woman I know,” Mikey said of his mother. “She never shows weakness.” Mikey transferred to Radnor-based Cabrini after two years at Wagner College in Long Island so he could be closer to his family in Sicklerville, New Jersey, especially during Matt’s senior year of high school.
Together, Mikey and Matt have become the men of the house.
The brothers have their teammates to lean on. As a family, they also have the Tinaris, Christopher and his wife, Carla, and their children, Olivia and Jackson. Along with love and respect for Bob, the Tinaris share the Vanamans’ passion for lacrosse and the Jersey shore.
Mikey called them “friends-turned-family.” He speaks for his mother and brother when he says, “The Tinaris are the most unbelievable people that you could ever meet. They’ve done so much for my family.”
In his eulogy, Christopher spoke of Bob’s work ethic, beginning when he was a young boy who could fix almost anything, and later, as an HVAC technician who rose through the ranks at Northeast Mechanical. He touched on his ambitions, his love for his country, his prestigious Eagle Scout designation that helped him land a job, his interests in snowboarding and surfing and his devotion to crooners like Billy Joel and Frank Sinatra, the latter of whom Bob listened to during his last days.
Christopher described Bob as low key, a man who happily portrayed himself as a man of few words, but whose character and actions spoke otherwise.
“Bob was a giant of a man in every sense,” Christopher said.
Christopher spoke about Bob’s unconditional love for his family, and his excitement for watching his sons play lacrosse.
“If anyone wanted to find Bob, he was always on the sidelines at one of his boys’ lacrosse practices or games,” Christopher said. Whether in person, online or via video, Bob never missed a game, even when he was suffering from the side effects of his cancer treatment.
Christopher, who has become a father-figure of sorts for Mikey and Matt, said he will be there for the whole family. Whether it is to cheer the brothers on at a lacrosse game or to mark an occasion big or small.
“Bob would have done the same for me,” he said.
At a dinner celebrating Matt and Jackson’s high graduation, Christopher offered an emotional toast, in part saying, “A brother is a friend God gave you, a friend is a brother your heart chose for you.”
The Vanamans are especially thankful to Jackson Tinari, Matt’s lifelong best friend, St. Augustine classmate, and both high school and Blackstorm club lacrosse teammate. He introduced the Vanaman’s story to the HEADstrong Foundation. The connection provided the family financial support system through the organization’s Attack Cancer campaign, while also uniting the Vanamans with kindred spirits who well know the heartbreak of losing a loved one to cancer and a founding family who love lacrosse.
Jackson said he been aware of HEADstrong for a few years, through the Faceoff Academy National showcase.
“It was an opportunity to help my friends,” Jackson said.
Jackson proudly wears HEADstrong and BOBSTRONG bracelets stacked on his right wrist. He hasn’t taken them off in almost two years, not even for prom.
The Vanaman brothers wear the bracelets, too. They also have their father’s initials, RV3, tattooed on their chests. And Matt wears a tribute to his dad on his lacrosse helmet.
“I do certain things for my dad every day, and Matt does the same thing,” Mikey said. “We both play lacrosse for him.”
Mikey said he talks to his dad just before the start of every game, the way they used to do the night before game day.
The Vanamans knew that navigating life without their husband and father would be one of the hardest things they would have to do, second only to losing him. Through HEADstrong, Mikey said they found great comfort.
Whether it was a phone call, or a hit on his Instagram congratulating him on Player of Week, even the smallest gestures from HEADstrong staff meant the world to Mikey.
“HEADstrong is able to really change lives,” Mikey said. “It was the worst time of my life, and they helped make it a little easier.”
Mikey said sharing people’s stories through HEADstrong is another amazing way that HEADstrong helps others.
“It helps you to know it’s going to be OK, that your situation is not the end-all, be-all. Though things are going to happen, and you are going to go through rough things, there is an upside,” he said. “The sun does shine again.”
Mikey knows he wants to give back to HEADstrong, though he is not yet sure how.
A surfer’s farewell
It was through lacrosse that both Mikey and Matt were able to attend St. Augustine and commit to continue their careers at the collegiate level. It was all part of Bob’s vision for his sons to have a happy, successful life.
The Vanaman brothers are already carrying on their father’s strong work ethic. Mikey’s busy at Boeing, where he landed a summer internship in supply chain. Matt, now that third-seeded St. Augustine Prep boys lacrosse team clinched its first Non-Public A title, will be returning to Fins Bar & Grille in Cape May to work as a food runner.
Family time at the shore has always been special to the Vanamans. It’s hard without their beloved patriarch, but he is there with them in spirit, Mikey said.
On July 2, the Vanamans and close friends plan to paddle out on surfboards from Rambler Road beach in Wildwood Crest and spread Bob’s ashes over his ocean playground – set afloat with endless love by the summer wind.