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Tony St. Clair, 46, started attending school when his son, Robert, 23, who is legally blind, needed a note taker.
“I am his eyes,” Tony said. “And he is my legs.”
Now, Tony said that they will be the first father and son to graduate together from Radford University in 100 years.
They will be the first members in their family to graduate from college. Tony got into the history’s honors society and Robert got into the social science’s honors society. Tony and Robert are getting their degrees in history and minors in political science.
“I’m just really proud of my son,” Tony said.
Robert and Tony aren’t stopping there either; they plan on attending graduate school at Radford next fall in order to get their master’s in counseling education.
Robert was born with an eye condition called Stargardt’s Disease and can’t see well enough to read a lot or take notes. Tony was born with a defective heart valve, and is on his third valve replacement. He is also a 22-year cancer survivor and can’t walk very well. But that didn’t stop either one of them. For Tony and Robert, it’s all about determination.
“You just have to work extra hard,” Tony said. “Whether you are legally blind or you’re like me, and can’t get around and have an artificial heart valve. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything, you just have to work harder.”
Tony and Robert drive from Roanoke to get to school everyday, but pride themselves on being on time and hardly ever missing class, even driving in the night before and camping out on campus when intense weather hits RU.
“One of the major keys, I think, in our lives is perseverance,” Robert said. “To be able to persevere, through whatever issues you have.”
Robert was homeschooled by Tony for seven years and then attended Virginia Western Community College, where his father took notes for him. Tony and Robert then decided to transfer to Radford, because of the smaller, community feel.
“We got into Virginia Tech, and we turned Tech down, because it’s too big for me to walk,” Tony said.
Tony and Robert are from Botetourt County, and value family and community. Robert said that had a lot to do with deciding on Radford.
“We don’t want to be numbers, we want to actually be known and be able to have a relationship with the professors,” Robert said.
Tony and Robert love Radford, they even call it home. They try to make a point to talk to others every week, including university staff.
“You never know when a joke or a good word or a smile could change somebody’s life,” Tony said.
Tony and Robert said that they owe thanks to a wide range of people, including the disability resource office. They value their relationships with their teachers as well and said that many of their professors are very understanding of their disabilities.
“College is not just showing up and doing your school work; you should have a relationship with your professor,” Robert said. “I’ve had many different relationships with our professors, and I look at them as my friends and not just as somebody that’s over me and trying to teach me.”
Tony and Robert will sit with their professors at lunch in Dalton, visit their teachers in their offices and make a point to keep in contact long after their classes are over. Tony said he tends to have a lot in common with his professors as well because of his age.
“We love all our history professors,” Robert. “We definitely wouldn’t have made it through some of our classes without Dr. Ferrari. She taught us how to write a paper correctly, and Dr. Ament is blind and she’s more understanding, because she’s been through it.”
Dr. Mary Ferrari, Associate Professor of History, said she enjoys having Tony and Robert as students.
“You would be hard-pressed to find two students at this university who are more excited about learning,” Ferrari said about Tony and Robert. “Their enthusiasm is infectious to the rest of the class.”
Dr. Suzanne Ament, Associate Professor of History, tries to be supportive of both Robert and Tony.
“Because I’m blind, Robert and I have a connection, because we can talk about things that other people don’t understand or have experience with,” Ament said. “I’m hoping he’ll count me as a resource in his life.”
Tony and Robert always try to be respectful to their professors and they both are willing to speak up in class discussions, even if that means being wrong.
“They really liven up a class in the sense of getting other people to participate,” Ament said. “They know other people, talk with them, and they’re very outgoing, much more than I’ve seen in a lot of students.”
Tony said that he and Robert wouldn’t have made it this far without help from both their professors and his wife, Kathleen. Kathleen is Tony’s second wife. His first wife left when Tony was diagnosed with cancer earlier in his life and he was given a year to live.
“I raised Robert, with the help of my father-in-law, for about four years,” Tony said. “And then I got married again. It’s just another obstacle, and if you just look at it as just another hill you have to climb, it’s a whole lot easier to make it.”
As for their love of history, it’s clear.
“I always wanted to be a history teacher as a kid,” Tony said.
And Tony and Robert’s love for history is shown through their respect for professors and attending classes. Ament said that they are very studious and always do their work in a timely manner.
“Tony and Robert both just love history, and they love to be part of the department,” Ament said.
They both plan on receiving their master’s in counseling education. Robert chose it, because he wants to help others. Tony feels that he inspired Robert, because Tony did a lot of volunteer work before they started attending college.
“Robert’s real goal is to be a counselor for the blind, and I think that he would be really good at that,” Ament said. “I think that’s a really good goal for him, and his personality and his experience. He’s a very gentle, kind person. He has a lot of compassion and a lot of supportiveness for other people.”
Robert has no plans of letting his disability get in the way of his future.
“I believe we set our goals high, but I believe we’ll reach them, because we have the faith and belief to go for it all, not just stop and rely on someone else,” Robert said. “As long as you put your whole heart into it, that’s what matters.”
Tony agrees, and tries to inspire others, including his fellow students.
“You’re never too old to try,” Tony said. “If you want something bad enough, you just have to go out and get it.”
As for how far Tony and Robert have come, both of them are pleased with their accomplishments.
“We are proud and happy with what we’ve accomplished so far,” Robert said.