Christopher Salem’s pragmatic attitude toward his progressive degenerative eye disease had earned him the admiration of co-workers and students. But when he took his new associate, Pancho, down the halls of the School of Management’s Alfiero Center, the reaction was downright adoring.
“Look at those eyes,” Salem heard students say. “He’s beautiful. I want to hug him.”
Salem was elated. “Mary,” he told a co-worker in the Career Resources Center, where he advises undergraduate students. “At 51, I’ve still got it.”
Of course, he knew the ogling and drooling—at least most of it—was over Pancho, a guide dog sponsored by the United Way agency Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
Pancho’s arrival in June meant adjustment—for Salem’s three children, who had to resist treating him as a pet until Pancho’s six-week training period ended, and for the wide-eyed School of Management admirers who had to restrain themselves from throwing their arms around Pancho’s huggable frame and kissing his soulful face.
After years of adapting to retinitis pigmentosa, a disorder leading to progressive, irreversible sight loss (a good day, says Salem, is making eye contact with students sitting across from him), a welcome logistical support system came in the form of this yellow Labrador with liquid eyes, an irresistibly pettable coat and magnetic personality.
“He always wants to please, always wants to make sure everything is all right. He’s there to protect me so I don’t fall. But he seems to look out for my mental state, too.”
Salem happily shares Pancho with the School of Management community. Weeks after Pancho’s training period ended, Salem declared a “play day” when the dog’s harness stayed off and everyone could bond.
“He was running up and down the long hallway, hitting every office, as if to say ‘I’m free!’ ’’ Salem says.
The CRC community celebrated Pancho’s presence, even on-duty. Pancho sleeps on a dog bed in the corner of Salem’s office, his four legs in the air. A co-worker took a cellphone picture of him this way and sent it via office email. Subject line: “Pancho hard at work.” And Pancho got his own UB magnetic nametag: “Pancho: School of Management.”
“Some of our most fun moments have been welcoming Pancho, working with Chris to make sure we’re treating Pancho the right way to be a guide dog, and coming up with ideas to announce him as our newest employee,” says Gwen Appelbaum, assistant dean and CRC director. “Pancho is a member of our team now.”
At home, where Salem relies on the support of his wife, Melody, and three children, Pancho has re-opened the neighborhood. Salem and Pancho explore the streets morning and evening. Mobility is an issue: “Not having the freedom to drive someplace can be incredibly frustrating.”
But Salem’s incessant willingness to adjust has served him well. Pancho is the latest evidence.
“I just keep moving forward—I’m not smart enough to realize there might be other choices. It’s a full life. This is not living in adversity. It’s working with what you have.”