Conversation swelled around the dinner table and silverware clinked together as the first course, a garden salad, was served in President Dennis Ahlburg’s home on Oakmont. The alumni sponsor for the class of 2016, Jim Boelens, sat across from me trying to convince David Tuttle, associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students, to join him on a mule ride. I laughed before turning my attention to the other guests seated at the table.
The president and his wife, Penelope Harley, were talking to the guests of honor, Alice and John Sheldon, an older couple from New York City on their first visit to Texas. Two representatives from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) framed the other guests, which included students and other university staff. In total, there were 19 of us.
It was the evening of Sept. 11, more than a decade after that fateful day. It was an odd group of people to share a meal with and even odder circumstances that brought us together. It was all because of a dog named Jurgens, the most energetic and obstinate yellow Labrador puppy this side of the Mississippi. She came into my life nearly a year ago, but her legacy predates her.
The Making of an American Hero
Paul Jurgens grew up on Long Island as the youngest of four siblings. The resident jokester in the family, Paul was known for his distinct, high-pitched laugh and mischievous sense of humor. As a kid Paul dreamed of becoming a police officer and went on to serve in the Marine Corps before becoming a Port Authority officer in New York City where he was stationed at John F. Kennedy Airport. His sister Alice Sheldon described him as a family man who loved his wife, his three kids, the Yankees and his job.
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001 started off like any other morning for most New Yorkers, but Paul’s was slightly different from his usual routine. Normally stationed at JFK Airport, Paul chose to attend a training session in New Jersey. He was on his way to the center when he heard over the radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Without hesitating, Paul called in to let his supervisors know that there had been a change of plans and he was going to help.
This was not the first time that Paul would risk his life for the safety of others. In 1992, Paul and other rescuers managed to save 300 passengers onboard a plane that crashed and caught fire while taking off from JFK Airport. According to his sister, Paul broke into the cockpit and worked to turn the plane off. One year later, in 1993, Paul responded to the first World Trade Center attack.
Despite his heroic track record, family members said Paul rarely talked about his experiences, viewing them simply as part of his duty. It came as no surprise to his family that he was one of the first responders that day, but it’s still hard for them to come to terms with the fact that he would still be here if he had been at his usual post in the airport.
It’s unclear which tower Paul went into. His body was never found. Only his gun and badge were recovered.
The Dog Jurgens
The tradition of bringing puppies to campus as a stress reliever during finals week is something many students look forward to. When Natalie Brown, former editor of the Mirage, was looking for ways to boost yearbook photo attendance, she thought of the program at Lackland Air Force Base. Natalie thought it would be fun for students to pose with the puppies in their photos and worked to bring them to campus. During their visit, the foster care program hit a note with university officials and members of campus publications. The idea to raise a puppy on campus was born.
It was early January 2012, and I was just beginning my second semester of college as a homesick first year. Somehow, I stumbled across information detailing how a puppy was coming to live on campus. Thinking of my dogs back home, the idea of spending time with another canine piqued my curiosity, and I shot an email to the woman in charge expressing my interest in the program. Her name was Katharine Martin, the campus publications advisor.
Four days later, on Jan. 16, I found myself at the annual San Antonio Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March clutching the leash of the wildest little puppy I had ever seen. She had a miniature red vest strapped around her chest to alert passers by that she was a working dog and could not be petted. Katharine mentioned that eventually she wanted to get Jurgens her very own Tiger Card to go on the vest, just like a real student of Trinity.
As the largest march in the country began and nearly 200,000 people flooded the streets of downtown San Antonio in celebration of the famous civil rights activist, Katharine began telling me about the program. Located out of Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, the dogs raised in the Puppy Program are in training to become explosives detection dogs. The first 10 weeks to 12 months of the puppies lives are spent in foster care with a family. Once a month, the puppies are sent back to Lackland for evaluations. At the end of the year, if they pass their final exams, the dogs go on to work in mass transit centers all over the country.
Trinity was an unlikely match for the program, as no university has ever hosted one of the puppies, but because of its proximity to the military base and the fact that the dog would come into contact with so many people on a daily basis, Lackland officials decided to take a chance and see if a bustling college campus could be the perfect place to raise a puppy.
As the march continued, the challenge of raising a bomb sniffing dog became apparent. I had to maintain a brisk pace to keep up with Jurgens’ enthusiastic exploration of her surroundings. She was jumping up on low walls and crawling beneath benches to investigate, eating almost everything in sight. Katharine explained how it was better for Jurgens to be bold and curious, than obedient and meek, but that she had to come to love her toys more than any of us. Play times were strictly regulated, and Jurgens was always allowed to win. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the program was that the dogs were unlike a typical family pet, in that they were to avoid that special bond that usually forms between a dog and its master. As a working dog, Jurgens had to learn to ignore and pay no interest in humans.
I found all of this information interesting, but the most compelling fact came when Katharine talked about how Jurgens got her name. All the puppies from the Air Force base are named after fallen heroes from the terrorist attacks. I remember thinking that it was a fitting tribute to the victims to remember them by giving their names to working animals that will help prevent future attacks, but I never could have predicted that Jurgens’ popularity would grow and generate so much interest beyond our little community. More surprising, I never could have predicted how much Jurgens would affect my own life.
By the time spring break rolled around in March, Jurgens had wiggled her way deep into the hearts of all involved with her care taking, and, as luck would have it, I ended up going to New York City for a week with my mom and sister. I eagerly looked forward to our visit to Ground Zero but wasn’t sure what to expect. I just knew it would be special because of the connection I had through Jurgens.
Finally, the day came. The line was long and security was thorough, but once we made it through the screening process, it took only a few minutes until I found his name on the side of the fountain. There it was: Paul William Jurgens. I stood solemnly, my skin prickled by a chill that didn’t come from the cool New York air. I ran my hand over letters engraved in the smooth marble. Ice cold. Low voices and the babble of water turned the memorial into a world completely separate from the bustling city outside. At a place that was already achingly sad, I felt a small little connection that made it even more heartbreakingly personal. In that moment, I felt honored to have spent time with Jurgens and to commemorate the memory of this fallen hero.
It wasn’t enough anymore to just be fostering a puppy. Dean Tuttle, a primary caregiver for Jurgens, wanted to reach out to Paul’s family. She had become a local sensation with a lot of attention on her at all times. The dean managed to get in contact with John Sheldon, Paul’s brother-in-law. As the relationship between the school and the family grew, we invited them to visit campus on the anniversary of Paul’s death to meet his namesake. Graciously, Alice and John accepted the invitation.
They arrived on Sept. 10 with a busy schedule, complete with interviews with both professional and campus media outlets, as well as a ceremony at the 9/11 memorial on campus and meetings with various community members and students. All were eager to express their gratitude for Paul’s sacrifice.
And that’s how I found myself at the president’s dinner table with the most unusual gathering of people I had ever dined with. If someone had told me this would be the result of signing up to be a dog-walker, I would have laughed. After the meal, the dinner party meandered to the Chapman Auditorium for a special interview with the Sheldons open to campus. It was an informal gathering. Alice and John sat next to each other on stage between three representatives from campus media. The old chalkboard behind them was covered in dust and several giant periodic tables hung from the walls. I slipped into the second row, quiet and intrigued.
The Sheldons began by talking about where they were when they heard the news. Alice maintained her smile even when her husband’s voice choked up. “He’d be overwhelmed by all this, I think. He was more of a laid-back guy,” she said of her brother. Somewhere in the back, a student cried quietly to herself while listening to their testimony. At the end of the night, the Sheldons and the dean exchanged gifts before leaving the stage, only to be swarmed by students who wanted to thank them for coming and offer their condolences.
Remembering those who went before us
Before I met the Sheldons, I couldn’t help but wonder about the initial contact between the dean and John. I thought it was bizarre that a family would fly 1,800 miles because a dog happened to share the name of a loved one they had lost.
I spoke to my dad the night before the dinner at the president’s house and expressed my concerns that it would be uncomfortable. As someone who recently suffered a loss of his own, he told me that the best way to heal is to honor their memory. He said not to hide from it or deny it, but to celebrate the life that was lived.
“There is no closure with something like this,” John said on stage that night. I think that’s what we’re doing here at Trinity. This isn’t closure, but a celebration. We’re celebrating the life of Paul Jurgens by raising the dog Jurgens to serve in his memory.