Roy L. Simpson, an assistant dean at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, was walking the streets of Provincetown, Mass., when he ran into two of the most beautiful wire fox terriers he had ever seen.
Simpson and his partner owned two wire fox terriers at the time and, when their dogs passed away about a year later, Simpson asked his partner if he knew how to contact the owner of the dogs they had seen. Luckily, his partner had saved the owner’s business card and the owner introduced them to show dog breeder Torie Steele.
Fifteen years since that Massachusetts run-in, Simpson has owned two Westminster grand champion canines. Simpson’s dogs are not only a source of happiness for him, but also act as his confidants and help him connect with fellow dog lovers.
Simpson’s Southern drawl gives away his South Carolina upbringing. Although he didn’t begin owning show dogs until he met Steele, Simpson has had wire fox terriers and goldfinch birds since he was born. And his father and grandfather owned wire fox terriers before him.
He and his childhood dogs grew up in a time of tumultuous social change. The nursing program at Grady Memorial Hospital was the only one in Georgia that was willing to accept a male applicant like himself, Simpson said. The same year he joined, the nursing school had just desegregated and gay men were facing an AIDS epidemic.
Growing up in these turbulent times, Simpson said he found that part of negotiating any issue in life is finding common ground. And sometimes that common ground is at the Westminster dog show.
“[The dog shows] don’t care whether I’m gay or straight-looking or not good-looking,” Simpson said. “Is my dog’s conformation perfect? And it is, so by God we’re going to win.”
Confirmation refers to how closely the dog fits the standards of a breed. In shows, dogs are judged on their confirmation and grooming. Simpson said that for his partner, the dog shows come with the relationship; the hobby is so financially demanding that it takes the support of one’s significant other.
Simpson currently owns two “high-energy” wire fox terriers. One is named JJ and the other Starlet, lovingly dubbed Marilyn Monroe because of the black dot on her face. His dogs fly under the seat in first class, receive full-time care and enjoy a toy box they can open themselves filled with carefully selected, safe toys. Marilyn Monroe recently gave birth to her second litter, six live puppies who are already competing nationwide. That’s unsurprising, given that the puppies were fathered by former Westminster Champion Davis.
Owners like Simpson spend up to $200,000 to put their show dogs on a circuit and gain recognition, appearing in magazines and other public spheres. These public tours lead to invitations to shows like Westminster. Once the dog has been invited to the show, some owners will handle the dog themselves, but others, like Simpson, often hire a professional handler.
Like the dogs’ toys and travel, Simpson carefully tailors their diets to their breed. Rather than luring wire fox terriers like JJ and Marilyn Monroe with typical dog snacks, handlers entice them with hot dogs during competitions.
Originally, Steele gave Simpson and his partner their dog JJ and a dog named Diva. However, Diva unexpectedly passed away when a vet overdosed her with anesthetics during a surgical procedure. As a nurse, Simpson said it was clear they had treated Diva like any dog who might have aggressive tendencies, as opposed to wire fox terriers which have been bred to be docile and don’t require nearly as much anesthesia.
Simpson said his nursing training not only helped him understand that loss, but also allows him to better care for his dogs on a day-to-day basis. He pays close attention to signs of sickness, which is important because the canines cannot directly tell him when something is wrong.
After Simpson graduated from Grady’s nursing program, he joined the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) in 1979, where he worked as a nurse and with information systems technology. He stayed in the nursing field until he decided to go back to school for his doctorate in nursing practice, graduating from American Sentinel University (Colo.) in 2012 at the age of 63.
Simpson came out as a gay man amid the AIDS crisis, when information on the disease was scarce — he served on former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s AIDS Commission Subcommittee under renowned health care professional Colleen C. Welch while at HCA and had one of his own partners die of the disease. Although advocating for gay rights has never been his core driving force, Simpson said he marched with other members of the LGBTQ community in the ’80s and was even shot at and beaten up for his sexuality.
Simpson married a woman, who is still one of his best friends, before coming out to his family in 1978.
“I am the first to tell you that if I had not been economically advantaged and highly educated, I probably would be dead from AIDS,” Simpson said.
Regardless of his sexuality, Simpson said his parents were always supportive of him.
“The component of guilt and condemnation were never part of my parents’ faith,” Simpson said. “I remember even when my parents were asked about my being gay by a minister, my mother was very clear with him that she had read the literature as well as he had and she could not see why there was an issue.”
Simpson said he’s not sure you can be a nurse without having some understanding of faith — whatever that faith may be.
Today, when he’s not caring for his dogs, Simpson teaches a course on data informatics at the Nursing School and supports information, educational and clinical simulation learning initiatives as the school’s assistant dean of technology.
Susan Swanson, a former student of Simpson who now co-teaches the data informatics with him at the Nursing School, has been showing dogs her whole life and also breeds dobermans.
Dogs can come and go, but the people you meet through your dogs, like Simpson, often remain in your life, she said.