"I'm so proud of Robert. I can't imagine what it's like to not have your sight," Tony said. "I'm sure, though, that he can't imagine what it's like to not be able to walk up a hill. The things I can't do, he can. And the things he can't do, I can."
After community college, the St. Clairs transferred to Radford University and have taken every class together.
"I carry the books, and he does the seeing and helps me with reading," Robert said.
Often throughout their academic careers, Tony read class assignments and notes twice, once to Robert and once for himself. "I've read as much as a hundred-and-some pages to him at one time, which has probably helped my GPA because I see the material so much," Tony said.
Tony didn't mind the extra work. He and Robert, both members of Pi Gamma Mu honor society, are eager learners.
"Tony and Robert are great to teach and to talk with outside of class because they like knowledge," said Kurt Gingrich, associate professor of history. "They are always asking, 'Is this true?' or 'Can you tell me more about that?' For a professor, those questions are pure gold. Tony and Robert genuinely embrace the ideal of the university—that gaining and sharing knowledge is useful."
Outside class, Tony likes chatting with Gingrich about movies and '80s music. "It's nice having professors who are about your age," Tony said. "You can talk about different things, and that makes it fun."
Associate Professor of History Suzanne Ament, who is blind, has been a valued teacher and friend to Robert. She has her own stories and examples of Robert and Tony's thirst for knowledge and their unique ability to spark discussion in, for example, a Chinese history class.
"Tony can get the class going with a crack here and joke there," Ament said. "It was a lot of fun to have them in class. Going into the classroom, you didn't know what was going to happen that day, but you knew there would be a lot of talking and discussion, and people would be engaged. Robert and Tony together add a lot to a class."
Sometimes, Ament said, she would have to pull the reins on Tony because he was asking questions in advance of the lecture material. "I'd have to say, 'Tony, wait for that question. We'll get there,' " Ament said, laughing. "I'd have to slow him down."
Tony admits that his eagerness to learn gets ahead of him sometimes. "I have a big mouth," said Tony, who was a high school debate champion in Botetourt. "My motor runs all the time."
But nothing so far has been able to stop Robert and Tony from achieving their goals. In 2009 Tony had to pull out of classes for heart surgery. He spent 71 days in the hospital, but he came back stronger than ever.
Not even bad weather could keep the St. Clairs from class. When weather forecasters last winter said snow was on the way, rather than risk missing classes, the two left Roanoke at 6 p.m. the day before.
The roads already were slick by the time they reached Radford, and Tony's truck skidded through the intersection at Main Street and Tyler Avenue. Yet the two arrived on campus safely, worked on a research paper and slept on a sofa in Young Hall.
After all that, they woke up the next morning to find that class had been delayed until 11 a.m.
"We just worked more on the paper," Tony said. "We don't like to miss class."
The two have their bachelor's degrees in history now, but their education isn't over. They plan to pursue master's degrees in counseling education at RU. From there, Robert said, "we may move on to a doctoral degree. Who knows?"
As for a career, Robert, who first set out to be a history teacher, now wants to be a counselor to the blind. "He'll be good at it, too," Ament said. As for Tony, he wants to get back to work too, but his main concern is helping Robert achieve his career goals. "My job on Earth is to make sure Robert gets a good job," Tony said.
For that and for all his dad has sacrificed, Robert said he is forever grateful. And for the pain and surgeries his father endured to get an education, he is forever proud.
"He gave me a hero to look up to," Robert said with a smile. "I've seen how he has persevered through his difficult health problems. I'm proud of him because he came back to school 25 years later to get his degree."