It’s about 5 o’clock on a Thursday evening. A sea of young, worried faces criss-crosses the residential quad, hustling from a lecture to the library or from the gym to one of two adjacent glass cubes. There is a bead of sweat on their collective brow, either from the lingering humidity of summer or the prevalent mugginess of procrastination. They say, “Hi, how are you?” when they see their peers coming toward them, not even waiting for the singularly mandatory response of “good” as they pass. They are Duke students, and they don’t have time to stop and chat.
It’s about 5 o’clock on a Thursday evening. An older man donning a polo shirt, khaki shorts, white tennis shoes and a brandless navy cap saunters onto the residential quad, leisurely coming from someplace and headed toward somewhere. There is a leash in his hand, an excited golden retriever at the end of it, pulling the man along at a steady pace. When he sees a tide of young, sweaty-browed faces coming toward him, he stops, lets the sea of hands wash over his golden pooch, and asks the faces, "How are you, really?", listening as the ocean roars. This is Keith and he has time to stop and chat.
A boy's new friend
I met Keith—and his dog, Nugget—on a brisk weekday afternoon during my first semester at Duke. I was on a stroll back to my dorm after a satisfyingly hedonistic meal of Marketplace's limitless lemon meringue pie.
Let me set the scene.
I strut down the marble steps of the dining hall onto the East Campus Quad. It’s a warm spring day, yet not many students are out and about. It’s midterm season and they’re stressed. So am I.
I turn at a flash of gold in the periphery of my vision. A beautiful golden retriever chasing a ball on the circular patch of earth that divides the dining hall and the library. There is something about golden retrievers in particular that just says, “Pet me, pet me now, dammit.” I sprint over and instantly run my fingers through the golden’s thick coat as she sat there, tail wagging and panting happily. “This is just what I needed today,” I think aloud to myself. I take a deep breath and exhale.
You see, when I started college, I really missed home. Like so many of my classmates divorcing themselves from the familiarity of their youth, I yearned for it all. My friends. My parents. A loyal toilet seat acquainted with my buttocks, and my buttocks alone. But more than anything, I missed my dog—a small, fluffy cocker spaniel-poodle mix with an ear-piercing yip and an aggressive fondness for human legs. Feebie has this special ability, as most dogs do, to be unconditionally loving and innately empathetic, only asking for the occasional belly rub as adequate compensation. With an understanding tilt of her head or the wet nuzzle of her nose, Feebie can lift my broken spirits, soothe my teenage angst and be the whipped cream on that comforting chocolate sundae I call home.
Coming to Duke was full of challenges, but none so pressing as the void of not having a canine companion. With all of my peers constantly in motion during the merry-go-round that is the first semester of the rest of one’s life, I wished there was a little, illiterate creature that would lie on the floor with me in silence and merely exist in the same space. I once tried petting my freshman roommate, a rather undersized and hairy man-boy from Los Angeles. Alas, it could not compare.
Crouching down and petting Nugget in the middle of my day filled me with that sense of home I had been longing for.
Keith and I spent the next 15 minutes conversing. Our chat didn’t go too in depth—he asked simple questions and I responded with simple answers. Yet, he gave me his undivided attention, making me feel that he had all the time in the world to stay and talk to me. He reacted and nodded understandingly to what I had to say, oddly able to instantaneously tap into the psyche of an 18-year-old. For a few brief moments, I was transported from a mindset of stress and impending due dates back onto my living room floor with my own pup. However, it wasn’t entirely the golden retriever that made me feel this way—it was also its owner.
This was my first encounter with Keith, and I assume the gist of this scene is not entirely my own. It’s probably how most students become acquainted with this wholesome man. We see Nugget, run over to pet her, and ultimately end up speaking with Keith for a brief while.
It’s not every day in college you make a new friend, much less with a 67-year-old man.
Keith: The true Durham native
Keith Upchurch has deep roots in Durham and at Duke.
He was born in Watts Hospital—now the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics—on Broad Street, a few blocks from East Campus. Like his parents and grandparents, all of whom had grown up in Durham, Keith was a Durham native through and through. His father, a lawyer, attended Duke, as did two of his father’s brothers. Additionally, one of Keith’s aunts was the daughter of Duke’s first athletic director, Wilbur Wade Card (after whom Card Gym is named).
Because of his ties to Duke and Durham, Keith always wanted to go to Duke, and from 1968 to 1972, he did. He resided on West Campus for his first three years and spent late nights doing homework in the laundry room because he liked the white noise. He wrote for The Chronicle for all four years of college, covering stories on local Durham residents, sporting events and issues of the day. He even published a piece on the Durham County Police Chief after a controversial response to the 1969 Allen Building sit-in in which student protesters were met with tear gas. Keith briefly considered going to law school, but a natural curiosity, a thirst for stories and a desire to share them led him to a career in journalism.
One fun story about Keith's time at Duke involves Kentucky Fried Chicken’s very own Colonel Harland Sanders. Keith was walking in front of the Chapel one day in 1968 and ran across the white-suit wearing, goatee rocking, fast-food mogul. Keith asked for an autograph and inquired why the Colonel was there.
He replied that he was at Duke Hospital being treated for high cholesterol.
By the time he graduated, Keith already knew he wanted to be a reporter, and since he had lived in Durham all his life, it was only natural that he would apply to the local paper.
"I would report on disasters. You have to approach people who are the victims of a fire in the right way," he said. "If you walk up to somebody who just lost their home in a fire and ask them 'well, how do you feel about that?'... do you think they are going to want to talk to you? You just have to put yourself in their position and word the questions the right way. I just always tried to make them feel comfortable."
He walked in one day to the The Durham Sun's office with a sampling of the pieces he had written for The Chronicle and was hired the very same afternoon. During his career at the paper, Keith would lend his talents to many different realms of journalism. He would do investigative work, including a piece that led to the bust of several Durham Police officers who were pocketing drug money and abusing confiscated narcotics. He interviewed and wrote profiles of important local and regional figures, such as the legendary track and cross-country coach Al Buehler. One time, he even asked his editor whether the paper would pay for him to go to Myrtle Beach to go parasailing if he were to write about it. And of course, he got away with it. Keith would remain at the paper for 43 years before retiring last December, outlasting two company mergers and writing over 10,000 articles.
One of the reasons Keith was so successful was because of the way he was able to make people feel. He had an energy about him, an excitement in his understanding eyes that made people feel as if they were talking to a neighbor even though they had just met him.
Perhaps his career as a journalist enables Keith to empathize so well with all those he meets. When talking with students, Keith is still on the clock, jotting down mental notes and remembering each individual story even though it will never reach publication.
Though Keith said he loved his job, it did take a toll on him after so many years. He would wake up in the middle of the night thinking he had missed a deadline. He was always thinking about the next story and rarely could allow himself to relax completely.
Thus, he’s always been oddly in tune with the stresses that young people face today. In fact, he wrote multiple articles for the Herald-Sun about the challenges young people face with stress and with sleep insomnia.
On Dec. 31, 2016, it was time to move on and relax for a change. But for Keith, it wasn’t so easy.
"I thought it was going to be like going to the beach for the rest of my life," he said. "But waking up the next day, I still had that same internal pressure. It’s illogical because I had no stories to write."
He’s tried to relax. He swims every day and believes that exercise is the best way to relieve stress. Taking Nugget over to Duke and talking with students is also in a way cathartic for him.
Keith has always been a dog person. His parents bought him his first pooch, a fox-terrier named Jackie, for Christmas when he was 11 years old. Jackie filled the young Keith with joy throughout adolescence and his undergraduate years. For a few years after Jackie died in 1975, Keith didn’t have another dog because he was living in an apartment complex that didn’t allow pets. However, in 1982, he decided to get a dog in violation of the apartment rules. He was walking through Northgate Mall one day and spotted an adorable Shetland Sheepdog in a pet store. Keith couldn’t resist—he named the dog Prince.
Keith never married and lived alone, so naturally Prince became Keith’s best friend. His favorite place to take Prince was to the Duke Gardens where, after long and stressful weeks at The Durham Sun, he would go to escape the high-pressure environment.
Prince was always very popular among people, especially children. "It was like walking a magnet," Keith recounted in Prince's obituary. "Everywhere, people—especially children—would come up, often run up, to Prince. They would rub him, kiss him, love him. I have never seen a dog that could bring so many smiles to so many people."
Sadly, Prince died in 1995 and for Keith, the void of being without a dog was almost too much to bear. The next year, he got his first golden retriever. He had heard from a friend that golden retrievers don’t bark too much and love everyone in the world.
Keith went out to a farm in nearby Greensboro where a dog breeder had a dozen or so newborn golden retrievers. Sitting on the grass on an April day, Keith was overrun with a swath of golden puppies clambering on top of him.It was “just like a Pepsi commercial,” he recalled and he struggled to choose just one, but he did, and named him Midas.
Midas was Keith’s new best friend, and they had many adventures together. One day, Midas jumped into the goldfish pond at Duke Gardens and Keith jumped in after him to drag him out, getting soaked in the process. Midas brought a certain joyfulness into Keith’s life and into the lives of everyone he encountered, the same way Prince had before him. Midas lived to be almost 14-years-old.
Midas’ ashes sit in an urn above Keith’s fireplace, and there is a charcoal drawing of the two of them hanging on the wall overlooking his living room.
Four months after Midas died, Keith bought another golden retriever, this time a girl. He named her Nugget.
For the first three years of Nugget’s life, Keith would take her—as he did with his previous dogs—to the Duke Gardens to get exercise and play with whomever they ran into among the flora and fauna. On one such day in 2013, they were taking a walk in the Duke Gardens when some students ran over to pet Nugget. One of the them turned to Keith and lamented that he wished there were more dogs on campus.
And so it began. A few times a week, Keith would bring Nugget over to campus for no particular length of time with no particular purpose. He just thought it would be something nice to do for the students. At first he didn’t know if students would even come over and talk to him or appreciate it in general. But very soon after, he was pleasantly surprised by how readily students embraced them.
In an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world, it’s only natural that young people today have their suspicions about strangers. Nugget, though, has put students’ guards down. Sophomore Carly McGregor said she has a love for animals and started the Duke University Dogs and Pals Facebook page, a group where students share pictures of any cute animals they see on campus.
“I don’t know about you but I don’t walk up to random adult men I don’t know and be like, ‘Hey, what’s up, I’m Carly,’” she said. “I mean, if you have a really cute golden retriever named Nugget with you, then I will definitely become your best friend if at all possible.”
Most students come over to Keith to play with Nugget, but Nugget’s mere presence lends Keith a sort of indicator of trustworthiness. How could a man with this cute of a dog have anything but the best intentions?
"Nugget is a friend magnet. She’s also a friend," he said. "I guess you could say she’s my best friend. But she’s also enabled me to make other friends, so many friends."
To many, Keith has become instantly recognizable. On any given day, one can find Keith walking across Abele Quad or in front of Lilly Library or on the Krzyzewskiville lawn, retractable leash in hand, always willing to make a new friend. Sometimes he’ll walk alone, taking in his surroundings, but often, he’ll be chatting with some student that he now calls his friend as any number of passersby squeal with joy petting Nugget’s mane.
Since Keith retired, bringing Nugget to campus has become his volunteer work in a sense, he said he feels as if he has an obligation to come to campus if it is going to make people happy.
"I’ve had so many, really hundreds, say, ‘This has made my day. You have no idea what a stress reliever this is,’” he said, adding that he has witnessed several students on the verge of tears when they saw Nugget. "I look at Nugget as a pharmacy on four legs."
Memes and stardom
The Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens Facebook page is a virtual destination where students post and share satirical or humorous pieces of media with each other. The page has become immensely popular, with over 8,000 current members.
Somehow, Keith and Nugget have made their way onto this page, and once they did, they became a Duke internet sensation almost overnight. Students will post memes, especially during stressful exam periods sensationalizing the warm and fuzzy feelings associated with the collective entity known as “Keith n’ Nugget.”
Junior Rob Palmisano, who is a reporter for The Chronicle, said he thinks that the proliferation of factors such as the meme page has granted a level of visibility to Keith and Nugget that they would have never had before.
“Were it not for that force, you would not see nearly the response from the student body when walking around," Palmisano said. “I think today, it has become an achievement or a status symbol to proclaim that you are friends with Keith and Nugget."
And indeed, Keith and Nugget have become icons. Sophomore Trent Lau even started a petition to get a statue made of Keith and Nugget to replace the recently removed one of Robert E. Lee. It has garnered 112 signatures in support. Lau is still waiting to hear back from Luke Powery, the dean of the chapel, for comment.
Junior Class President Omar Rahim Khan was one of Keith’s earliest friends in the Class of 2019. He met Keith early on during his freshman year, just as I had, and later told me how much his relationship with Keith meant to him. We sat down in my apartment one morning and talked about Keith over pancakes.
“I’ll be fairly straight with you, I have not had the best time at Duke,” he said. “My first year was particularly awful. I despised being on campus and didn't feel at home or welcome at all. And one of the few people that would make me feel different was Keith, genuinely.”
He grabbed a blueberry flapjack.
"When I first met Keith, I would call him Sir...because he’s an older guy," Khan said. "For the first month, he gradually worked me into calling him Keith. I definitely wouldn’t have approached him if he didn’t have a dog. But he’s one of the few people that is as kind or as charismatic as their pet.”
Khan isn't alone in his praise for Keith and Nugget. Dozens responded to a Facebook post asking for reflections on the duo.
“There’s something so heartening about seeing Nugget and getting to pet her, especially in the middle of busy school life,” wrote junior Chandler Richards in an email. “But even more than that, I really appreciate getting the chance to talk to Keith. No matter what I’m working on or studying, whether it’s neuroscience or music or physics, he’s willing and interested to have a conversation about it."
For junior Alonso Trejo-Mora, Keith and Nugget have helped him to slow down and appreciate his surroundings.
“Whether walking around Wilson, sitting outside of West Union or strolling through East Campus, Keith and his noble, squirrel-chasing companion have shown me time and time again why sometimes in life it pays to take a small pause, take a deep breath and take in the beauty of Duke’s campus," he said.
Many students have even interacted with Keith outside of spontaneous encounters. Sophomore Helena Wu said she set up a playdate with Nugget and her own golden retriever.
“I was touched that Keith made the arrangement in his schedule to meet up with us on West Campus and take the time out of his day to chat," she said. "Keith genuinely is happy to meet people."
The student who never left
When I arrived at Keith's home—a townhouse seven minutes away from West Campus—Nugget burst out and greeted me excitedly, running around and jumping up and down. Keith and I worked together to corral her inside and then sat down in the living room, Keith in his leather recliner chair and myself on the adjacent sofa. We talked for over two hours.
Throughout the conversation, he kept intermittently taking pause to marvel at the fact that after spending the greater part of his adult life interviewing other people, this was the first time that he was the interviewee. As I probed his memory, he would lean back and search through his mental filing cabinet and, with seemingly perfect recall, uncover chapter upon chapter of his story.
In his friendly, soft-spoken, mildly Southern inflection, Keith discussed his life. His childhood growing up in Durham, his time as a student at Duke, his career as a journalist and his current happenings. He showed me his favorite books, a full wall of leather-bound classics in a beautiful, towering wooden bookcase. He lent me his edition of Emerson’s essays and told me to read the one on friendship, as he appreciated mine.
As we were wrapping up, I told Keith about some of the emails people had sent about him. He looked surprised at first and then intrigued. He took out a pair of reading glasses and scrolled through diligently.
And then something happened that I wasn’t expecting—Keith began to tear up.
When Keith first brought Nugget onto East Campus, he had no idea that students would even take the time to play with Nugget, much less talk to him. Four years later, having brightened so many days of so many people and having never asked for anything in return, Keith Upchurch wiped his tears away, turned toward me, and laughed.
Keith’s tradition—walking Nugget on campus and talking to students—is not something incredible, nor does it require all that much effort. It is merely the result of a fundamental desire to make people happy and the persistence to do so.
If Keith has taught me anything, it’s that learning never ceases, you don’t have to go very far to make a difference and that there is no such thing as too many friends.
Before I left Keith’s house, I asked him one final question. How long would he keep bringing Nugget to campus?
Again, he laughed.
Nugget wagged her tail.