On a pleasant morning in late August, 15 first-years crowd around a stone bench outside the Brodhead Center, cooing and “ahh”ing.
The cause of all the commotion? A little ball of snow-white fur, darting between students, her tongue lolling and tail wagging with delight. This is Gold, Keith Upchurch’s 11-week-old golden retriever puppy.
Entranced, the students pet Gold’s downy fur until their orientation leader tells them it’s time to explore the rest of West Campus.
“This is part of the tour,” Upchurch chuckles. He tightens his grip on Gold’s leash to stop her from following the students as they trickle away.
The path to Gold
Upchurch, Trinity ‘72, has been a fixture on Duke’s campus ever since he started bringing his golden retriever Nugget to University grounds in 2012. In the past decade and especially during the pandemic, Nugget provided much-needed relief for students, their stress melting into joy upon seeing the dog-owner duo. When Nugget died May 12 from lymphoma, she was 11 years old and had interacted with more than 10,000 students.
Upchurch spent that May grieving, but he remembered the impact Nugget had on the Duke community. It was his “calling” to get another golden retriever, he said.
“I had so many students, sometimes with tears in their eyes saying that just spending a minute or two with Nugget helped them so much,” Upchurch said. “I wanted to get another golden that will provide the same therapy to students. Judging from what's happened in the last few days, especially [with the first-years], I think it's working.”
A twist of fate brought Gold and Upchurch together. Gold was originally destined for Hawaii and Upchurch was offered a male puppy from the breeder. But one night, the breeder called Upchurch and said the female puppy’s original buyer had backed down. The breeder asked him if he wanted this puppy instead.
“I said yes,” Upchurch said. “And the rest is history.”
That “history” has only been a few weeks, but Upchurch’s daily routine has transformed into hours of housebreaking, cleaning chew toys and coaxing Gold into her crate so he can catch a break. Crate training has been tough, but Upchurch has found a solution: bison-flavored treats from Whole Foods.
“At first she hated the crate. She thinks she's being left out of some fun,” Upchurch said. “She has FOMO (fear of missing out).”
Before settling on Gold’s name, Upchurch toyed with calling her “Carat,” as in gold carat.
“And then I realized I would have to explain what that meant hundreds of times, and just the thought of that exhausted me,” Upchurch laughs.
The name “Gold” popped into Upchurch’s head as he swam laps one day.
“It’s simple, it’s one syllable. Everybody knows what it means. And it refers to the Golden Retriever,” he said.
A golden future at Duke
When the pair came to Duke’s campus for the first time on Aug. 6, Upchurch wasn’t sure how people would react. Would they walk right past him and Gold, their eyes glazed over, thinking she was just another boring dog?
That day, Upchurch parked behind the Chapel and began his trek with Gold to his usual spot outside the Brodhead Center. As he and Gold meandered across the Bryan Center Plaza, people stopped them left and right.
“Even though the campus wasn’t that crowded it seemed like everyone on campus moved in [Gold’s] direction,” he said.
Upchurch plans to visit campus with Gold every day. In August and September, he says, 9 a.m. is a sacred time because the sun isn’t beating down yet. During the cooler months, they’ll come around the early afternoon.
Near the end of our conversation, Joey Scarpa, a junior, bounds across the quad towards Upchurch, happy to find that he hasn’t left yet. “Sorry I woke up late!” he says, still catching his breath. “But I made it!”
Gold, who’s growing baby teeth, promptly begins to gnaw on Scarpa’s finger.
“Ow ow ow!” he says, as he gently pries Gold’s jaws off.
Upchurch smiles and places a hand on Gold’s snout. “I’ll be glad when she loses her teeth,” he chuckles.
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Katie Tan is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.