Her picture has adorned postcards passed to graduating seniors and filled a page of the 2017-2018 yearbook. Her fans circulated an online petition to erect a statue in her honor as the “best symbol of Duke’s unity and togetherness.”
And, in a true test of popularity among college students, she has become the subject of a viral meme on the Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens Facebook page that reached 1,300 likes and includes the caption: “When you’re struggling through finals, remember the real reason you’re here.”
If basketball is king on Duke’s campus, then Nugget—a golden retriever known for her silky fur, lolling tongue and gregarious personality—is the queen.
“She’s a celebrity,” said Andrew Kelleher, who graduated from Duke in 2019. “She handles the attention very well. She has this endless desire to be pet and loved on. It’s not uncommon in dogs, but to her extent it’s pretty remarkable.”
Nugget and her owner, Keith Upchurch, Trinity ‘72, have come to campus since 2012. Initially, they would only come on weekends, but since retiring a few years ago, Upchurch has brought Nugget to campus almost every day for a few hours at a time.
Regardless of the spot they choose, they inevitably become the epicenter of a group of grinning, cooing students, who find an oasis in Nugget’s smiling face.
For sophomore Soren Christensen, Nugget embodies motherly qualities, bringing him calm when he prepares for the umpteenth midterm or recovers from a grueling all-nighter.
“I’ve seen her with some students at the end of a very long week of midterms, and it’s almost as if she can tell they’re dead tired because she just sits there very patiently and lets them pet her for a good 10 minutes or so,” Christensen says. “It’s like she knows that if people are feeling stressed she’ll be the one who’s most capable of making them feel less stressed and more in control of themselves.”
Nugget, a ‘rockstar’
“Nobody knows Nugget like I do,” Upchurch says, in his slight North Carolina drawl.
On a damp October morning on Duke’s East Campus, he and Nugget are at their usual spot on the benches outside Marketplace.
Ordinarily, Upchurch comes to campus wearing white tennis shoes, white shorts and a white custom-made Nugget t-shirt, but today’s colder weather means he’s donned light blue jeans and a sweater.
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A steady stream of students flows into the building, anxious to escape the cool drizzle outside, and many of them—a pair of wrestlers, a girl with Beats headphones draped around her curly hair—pause to bury their hands in Nugget’s heavy, golden pelt, which smells, according to Upchurch, like “buttered toast.”
To say that Nugget enjoys this would be an understatement—she jumps back and forth between students, her tail beating like a metronome. When a young man chucks an apple (her favorite fruit) across the quad, Upchurch lets Nugget off her leash, and she rips across the grass, eventually churning the fruit into a slobbering mess.
Despite the thrill, Nugget never barks.
“She’s barked about eight to ten times in her entire life, and every time it’s been when she sees a spaceship on television,” Upchurch says.
Coming to Duke’s campus feels natural for Upchurch, who grew up in Durham, graduated from Duke in 1972, and boasts a father, three uncles, three aunts and one cousin who also attended the University.
Throughout his undergraduate years, he reported for The Chronicle and after graduating, he naturally transitioned to working for Durham’s local newspaper, now-The Herald-Sun.
Over the next 43-plus years, he covered everything from the bonfires after Duke basketball championships to murder trials and highway catastrophes. But as much as he loved reporting, the constant stress of meeting deadlines took a toll on his health, causing him to wake up with cold sweats in the middle of the night.
Before Upchurch retired December 2016, his doctor warned him to think about transitioning away from work.
“He said it was important to retire to something and not just from something,” he said.
Bringing Nugget to Duke has become that “something” for him, easing his transition from the hectic news cycle to a much more subdued lifestyle.
Nugget’s entrance into Upchurch’s life came in 2010 when he placed a deposit on a new litter of golden retrievers from a breeder in Wake Forest. When he came to pick up Nugget at ten weeks, the breeder told him that he was about to receive an exceptionally beautiful puppy.
“She’s been a rockstar ever since,” he says.
On a typical day, Upchurch and Nugget begin with breakfast (cereal for him, Eukanuba dry food and sometimes a slice of banana for her) and MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Upchurch then swims for 45 minutes at one of the Duke gyms, usually the Wilson Recreation Center. In the late afternoon, he brings Nugget to one of the benches in a central location on Duke’s campus, where students gravitate toward her.
On special occasions, Upchurch will vary the location. This summer, Nugget celebrated her ninth birthday July 28 outside Wilson, and he brought Cookout milkshakes for the students and a chicken breast for the birthday girl.
And, of course, he said, pointing to the grassy quad across from us, there’s the epic snow day that concluded with Nugget swallowing 31 snowballs.
“We went home and she used the bathroom for the next six hours,” he says with a chuckle.
Upchurch understands stress from his career in the news industry, so, as much as he brings Nugget for personal enjoyment, he also wants her to be a therapeutic outlet for high-strung students. When he first brought her to campus, he witnessed the transformation in people’s attitudes as they cuddled with her, the worry and tiredness fading slowly from their eyes.
“Nugget sort of absorbs stress and releases it into the atmosphere,” he tells me. “This is my volunteer work.”
We’re interrupted by a girl who comes out of the dining hall and immediately embraces Nugget, cooing in a high-pitched voice. “Nugget, hellooo, oh my gosh, I love this dog!”
“See,” Upchurch turns to me. “This is better than a byline.”
After a pause, he grows more reflective.
“The thing about bylines and being known through your writing is that it gives you notice but it doesn’t really make friends,” he says. “Once you get past a long career, you realize that in the end, friendship is what matters.”
Upchurch’s connection with students
Upchurch owns a small digital camera—the same camera he used to snap photos of bank robberies and murder scenes for The Herald-Sun—and he often asks to pose for a picture with those students who have grown closer to him.
When he returns to his house, he prints these pictures out at eight by ten inches and stores them in a filing cabinet, a physical symbol of the friendships that have blossomed out of students’ encounters with Nugget.
In total, he estimates that he has come to know roughly 2,000 students through Nugget, who acts as a “magnet,” attracting a daily crowd of new students and potential friends, although he admits most of these are merely acquaintances.
Kelleher, one of Upchurch’s closer friends, graduated from Duke this spring and now works for the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. During his first two years at Duke, Kelleher would jostle his way into the crowds that revolved around Nugget.
Eventually, seeing Nugget and Upchurch became a seamless part of his experience at Duke. He remembers countless times where he would finish a class, take a walk along Duke’s main quad, and end up seeing the pair on one of the benches, an “anchor” of familiarity.
As he began to talk more with Upchurch, the two developed a mentorship relationship in which Kelleher would share with him extracts from a book he had started, and Upchurch would offer feedback for free and always within the span of 24 hours.
In a campus swarming with networking opportunities and pre-professional clubs, Upchurch’s non-transactional friendship felt refreshingly authentic.
“If he’s just walking his dog and going around saying hi to people and having people pet Nugget, that doesn’t feel transactional at all, that just feels honest and genuine,” Kelleher says. “You don’t really get that from many people.”
When Kelleher first moved to D.C., while struggling with the transition to a new city and life in his sparsely furnished apartment, he received an email from Upchurch, who asked about the move and his progress on the book.
“I’ve been stressing and sleeping on the floor waiting for a bed to come in, and here’s this email taking me back to something familiar,” Kelleher says.
And yet, this bond between Upchurch and Kelleher seems to represent the exception, rather than the norm. I witnessed this myself as I sat with Upchurch and Nugget on the benches of the freshman dining hall—most students would rush to pet Nugget, and only a few would go beyond small talk with Upchurch.
But that may be an inevitable effect of being the owner of a dog as alluring and charismatic as Nugget. After all, it’s much easier to show love to a golden retriever than a retired newspaperman.
Upchurch understands this reality, says Christensen, who has gotten to know Upchurch; perhaps, that’s why he’s careful to come to campus wearing Nugget apparel—a shirt with Nugget’s face on it, for instance, or a Nugget cap.
“Upchurch understands that one of the consequences of assuming the role of bringing a dog to campus and letting students get to know the dog,” Christensen says, “is that they might get to know the dog and ignore you.”
Towards the end of our conversation that October morning, Upchurch hollers over to Alex Leo-Guerra, a first-year and a staff writer for Recess, who had stopped by earlier and who now sits a few yards away with his laptop.
“Did you get some studying done, Alex?” he asks.
Leo-Guerra did not, but Upchurch assures him that at least he got a taste of fresh air.
“Exactly,” Leo-Guerra says, as he rubs his hands up and down Nugget’s back. “And, of course, with Nugget here, what’s not to love.”
After a pause, he adds, “And you as well, Keith. Can’t have Nugget without Keith.”
“Thank you,” Upchurch says. He quickly adds, “She’s probably got apple breath.”
“I can smell it,” Leo-Guerra says, and both he and Upchurch begin to chuckle.