Amid the many changes on Duke’s campus necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, one old sight reliably persists: a smiling canine face and her familiar owner.
The beloved dog-owner duo—Keith Upchurch, Trinity ‘72, and Nugget, his 10-year-old golden retriever—have promenaded through Duke’s campus since 2012. Since Upchurch retired from the Durham Herald-Sun in 2016, they have visited the University almost every day.
Their visits have made them many friends on campus over the years; Nugget’s exceptional lovability and infinite desire to be petted have made her a magnet, drawing all sorts of students to the duo to make both dog and man campus hallmarks.
The pandemic has at times altered Upchurch and Nugget’s visits to campus. Ultimately, however, it’s made them essential.
When Duke first locked down in March 2020, Upchurch and Nugget switched destinations. Instead of interacting with streams of students passing to and from various classes and activities, they spent their outside time alone at the Duke pond, careful to avoid other people.
The pair returned to a sparsely populated campus when Summer Session I began in June, and those visits have continued. If you wait on West Campus in mid-afternoon, you’re nearly guaranteed to spot them.
When I caught up with Upchurch and Nugget on the Monday before the two-day break from classes, they were settled on the bench near the entrance of the Brodhead Center that overlooks Abele quad—Nugget’s favorite.
The on-campus student population has increased dramatically in the spring semester. That means more people for Nugget to play with, Upchurch said. And as much as this is a plus for Nugget, the comfort and company that she provides for students is priceless.
Upchurch’s self-proclaimed job description for Nugget is “putting a smile on Duke students’ faces.”
“I usually give her a grade at the end of each day. It’s usually an A,” Upchurch said. “But sometimes if she gets distracted and she plays around with squirrels and ignores the humans, then I have to downgrade to a B or C.”
As we spoke, Nugget suddenly jerked her head at a sideways angle. Her ears perked up and eyes fixed on an invisible target ahead. She was looking for a squirrel.
Chuckling, Upchurch released Nugget from her leash to allow her the thrill of a chase. She raced across the quad, momentarily interrupting a nearby spikeball game. There was no squirrel—false alarm. “Come back, Nugget!” Upchurch called out. The golden retriever trotted back to the bench, panting.
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A much-needed good girl
While Upchurch enjoys seeing students socializing and playing games on the quad, he understands that behind the dormitories' stone walls, he cannot see the students struggling from the mundanity of online classes and the intense workload from a condensed school year.
Easing Duke students’ stress is more important now than ever. Upchurch believes the demand to be around Nugget has grown ever since the pandemic began: For many students, playing with Nugget has been the highlight of their day and main reliever of their stress.
“She’s not officially a therapy dog, but in actual practice, I’d say she’s providing therapy,” Upchurch said. “Some students tell me they get more therapy from Nugget than from the Wellness Center.”
As we talked, small groups of students continued to approach the bench to pet Nugget, their faces instantly melting into smiles as they scratched her chin and stroked her golden coat. Tufts of Nugget’s fur floated in the air—she had gone to the groomer that day, so she was shedding much more than normal. “It’s like a snowstorm,” Upchurch laughed.
Although Upchurch is in close proximity to so many students, he mostly doesn’t worry about contracting COVID-19 from visiting campus. He received his first vaccine dose a month ago at the North Carolina Specialty Hospital and his second dose last Thursday.
Even before Upchurch was vaccinated, he was always comfortable sitting outdoors at least six feet away from students. “I always felt safe then, and I feel safe now,” he said.
Visiting Duke gives some structure to Upchurch’s day. He and Nugget are able to get fresh air and exercise, to see the beautiful trees and flowers, and of course, to visit their friends.
Upchurch likes to end each day knowing he has accomplished something worthwhile.
“Generally, this means seeing friends and knowing we made a difference in people’s happiness,” he said. Coming to Duke’s campus with Nugget allows him to do just that.