Robert Wagstaff was less than a year from fulfilling his dream of becoming a college graduate before he succumbed to coronavirus on April 10. The 30-year-old, who had spent close to a decade taking a few courses at a time, always determined to complete his education, was among the first of 62 total coronavirus casualties reported in San Antonio as of Friday.

When Wagstaff died, family members lost their quiet and kind relative, who they affectionately called “BB;” a game shop owner lost his best customer-turned-friend; friends lost their ever-loyal companion and trusted confidant; and a mother lost her best friend, son, and other half.

“My heart is shattered into a million pieces. Part of us is gone,” said his mother, Audrey Wagstaff. “Christmas will never be the same. Mother’s Day was not the same without him.”

Wagstaff was one semester shy of completing his accounting degree at Texas A&M University-San Antonio when he died. He toiled for nearly a decade, balancing a full-time job with his studies so he could accomplish his education debt-free. The university plans to award Wagstaff a posthumous degree at its September in-person graduation ceremony. Wagstaff’s uncle, ReShard Wagstaff, will accept the degree.

“[Robert] truly embodied the work ethic and the dedication to learning that many of our students represent,” TAMU-SA President Cynthia Teniente-Matson said in a press release. “Robert’s passing so close to completing his degree was a true tragedy. We’re honored to include him in our graduating class, and we extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to his family.”

It was late March when Wagstaff fell ill with symptoms of coronavirus. Audrey recalled the day when Wagstaff started feeling sick – the two spent the day doing yard work, debating what they would have for dinner. But when it was time to eat, Wagstaff felt too sick and retired to bed, sweating. He later developed more symptoms: coughing, fatigue, and body aches.

Less than three weeks passed before Wagstaff died. It took Audrey days to throw out the food for their planned dinner.

She wasn’t allowed to visit her son throughout the time he was in the hospital. Early in his stay, she could call and talk with him. Contact diminished as time went on and Wagstaff was placed on a ventilator in intensive care.

Audrey didn’t see her son until the end of his life, she said. In the days following Wagstaff’s death, Audrey quarantined and planned her son’s funeral entirely over the phone and the internet.

She waited two weeks to bury her son. Social distancing restrictions mandated only 10 people could attend the funeral, three of whom were the funeral director, priest, and musician. Audrey’s brother streamed the service on Facebook to allow Wagstaff’s friends, family, and coworkers to say their goodbyes.

In the month since Wagstaff’s death, Audrey worried people would remember her son as a number, part of the statistics compiled by government agencies to add up the quantitative impact of the global pandemic. She hopes Wagstaff will be memorialized as a special person who left an indelible impression incapable of being distilled to numbers.

“He mattered,” she said. “He’s not just a number, he’s not just a statistic, he’s not just a 30-year old that passed from COVID. He was a real person with real feelings and emotions and he had a future planned for himself.”

Audrey described her son as loving, a determined student, avid reader, quiet, and sensitive person. Wagstaff was one semester shy of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Texas A&M University-San Antonio, an academic achievement roughly one decade in the making.

After graduating from Southwest High School, Wagstaff enrolled at St. Philip’s College, where he studied to be a radiologist. A persuasive guest speaker convinced Wagstaff to change course and pursue degrees in business and economics. He graduated with two associate’s degrees in business management and economics before enrolling at the University of Texas at San Antonio and later transferring to TAMU-SA in 2014.

Texas A&M University-San Antonio Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Robert wasn’t the type to wait until the last minute to do his school work. I knew he was on it,” Audrey said.

Semester by semester, Wagstaff worked toward his goal of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in accounting without any debt. He worked full time to support his studies and was working at Wells Fargo at its mortgage call center at the time of his death.

Had he crossed the stage and celebrated his long anticipated graduation in December as planned, Wagstaff wanted to take a year away from higher education to decide whether he preferred government or nonprofit accounting. Later, he planned to pursue a master’s degree.

Outside of school, Wagstaff loved to read and write, Audrey said, describing two book cases in his bedroom, stacked with titles he had already pored over.

“His favorite store was Barnes & Noble and that’s where he just loved, loved, loved to go and get his books,” Audrey said. “He loved to read series [of books]. If books were coming out every single month, he got every single one.”

Wagstaff also loved to write, Audrey said, reflecting on the number of unfinished stories her son left behind. He spent much of his free time alongside pet turtle Scratchy or playing the “Magic” card game or Nintendo games.

Clifford Short, the owner of game store Gamelot, first met Wagstaff when he was a freshman in high school. Wagstaff’s mom brought him to the store so he could start playing card games.

“The first time he came in he was pretty bashful and shy and wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to stay but we made him feel welcome and like one of the family and he’s been family ever since,” Short said.

Wagstaff liked to play Magic the Gathering and World of Warcraft the most. He was a friendly and knowledgeable player, and was always preoccupied with making sure everyone else was having fun. The last time Short saw Wagstaff was at the end of February.

Friends of Wagstaff remember him as a loving and witty person who always worked to put a smile on others’ faces and make them feel loved. Amanda Tonsul calls Wagstaff her very first friend, recalling that they met for the first time in a pre-K class at Five Palms Elementary. They grew up in school together, but lost touch after high school.

Tonsul ran into Audrey at a grocery store late last year and reconnected with Wagstaff. Tonsul was glad to find Wagstaff the same as he had always been, her caring and intentional friend.

“People grow up and go their separate ways but I knew that no matter what, Robert was my true friend,” Tonsul said. “Because I knew if I were to ever need him, if I were to ever call him, he would be there.”

Those closest to Wagstaff knew him as BB, a childhood nickname that stood for Baby Boy because in his first week of life, everyone called him “Baby Boy Wagstaff.” Audrey named him Wagstaff after his great-grandfather.

Megan Wagstaff first met her nephew 20 years ago when she married Audrey’s brother ReShard. She remembers watching him as a 10 year-old playing ninja games with sticks outside on the front sidewalk, content to be by himself.

“Those are some of my favorite memories of him when he was younger because those were foresight into the type of person that he was going to be,” Megan said. “He was always keeping to himself and he was such a kind soul. … But, BB was someone if you needed something, he would take care of you.”

Wagstaff is survived by mother Audrey S. Wagstaff, grandmother Audrey J. Wagstaff, aunt Antoinette Wagstaff, uncles Robert Wagstaff Jr. and ReShard Wagstaff, and cousins Keyshawn, Titus, Jayden, Tyson, and Teegan.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.