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With entire social media handles dedicated to the genre, today’s epic stories of animal connections enjoy an easy ride to internet fame. But it was not Instagram or Facebook that shot the life of Baxter, a 19-year-old hospice therapy dog, into the limelight. It was a memoir penned by his owner, Arizona State University alumna Melissa Joseph.
Self-published by Joseph in 2007, "Moments with Baxter" chronicles patients at San Diego Hospice, where she and the golden retriever/chow mix worked as volunteers visiting the terminally ill. YouTube videos showed Joseph pulling Baxter on a pillow-topped wagon through the halls of the facility, and when he died in 2009, online features hailed him as the oldest therapy dog in the world.
Joseph brought his legacy to life through her writing and split the money generated from book sales between San Diego Hospice and a local animal shelter. But with stints as an entrepreneur and English teacher across the country, she has held many titles of her own.
The Mississippi native first came to Tempe as a transfer student from the University of New Hampshire.
“I came for the beauty; the whole area had this expansiveness that really worked for me,” she said.
Joseph went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts in French in 1977 and a Master of Arts in English in 1979, both at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She then moved away from language and Arizona, founding a string of businesses including a boutique pet store, a specialty dress shop and the first nonsmoking coffeehouse in her hometown of Jackson.
Years later, she was back in the classroom teaching writing and English as a second language, the latter of which she says was bolstered by the master’s degree she earned at ASU. It was within that role that she made her way back to writing and decided to take on the the project about Baxter.
“I always had this insecurity about teaching writing while never having written anything myself,” she said. “Each person who Baxter met had a special story, so I put my head to my heart and decided I needed to write a book about these people and get them out there.”
Going from business owner to teacher and writer may not seem like the most natural transition, but for Joseph, they all derive from a creative drive that came alive during her time in Tempe.
“I had very lovely relationships with several professors who ignited my growth and fostered my intellect,” she said. “They taught me that I really could go on and do something with my life.”
Over a decade since "Moments with Baxter," Joseph made another return to writing in 2018 with a collection of original poetry titled "A Tender Force," published by San Diego’s Konstellation Press.
“This one was about finding my own, authentic voice,” she said. “I’ve always dreamt of writing a poetry book, so it was such a milestone for me because it made me feel like my work maybe did have some meaning.”
Profits from her latest work will also give back — this time, to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“I always knew it was going to be a philanthropic effort, same as Baxter’s story,” she said. “I just want to connect with people, and I think the world is in need of mental health; we all are.”
Joseph’s second collection of poetry, "Powerfully Simple," is due out this April. Still, she hesitates to call herself a writer.
“Basically I’m just a human being out here struggling, just like everybody else,” she said. “I speak my voice in many different mediums; poetry is just one of them.”