Philly’s David Sylvester Has Hugged More Than Half a Million People, and He’s Not Quitting Anytime Soon
He started his idiosyncratic quest 20 years ago in the aftermath of 9/11. This year, thanks to him, September 12th will be celebrated as National Hug and High-Five Day.
The high five I receive from David Hale Sylvester when I meet him for an interview in May is, honestly, breathtaking.
The sound — a satisfying palm-to-palm WHAP! — rings out and for a second seems to silence everyone and everything else in Washington Square. It snaps me awake, as if from a long slumber, before Sylvester pulls me into a solid embrace.
It’s not surprising. Hugs and high fives are what Sylvester does. His Instagram handle is @thehumanhigh5. Hugs are his calling card (literally; his business card reads “Free Unlimited Hugs & High-5s”). He’s spent the past 20 years honing his craft.
And yet when we meet, one year and two months after Philadelphia went into a protracted cocoon, it is surprising how nice it feels to simply engage in spontaneous physical contact with another human without (too much) fretting over aerosolized droplets. (He and I had both been vaccinated.) A year-plus without such casual, uncomplicated commingling, I realize, has taken its toll on me. So imagine what it must have been like for Sylvester.
At six-foot-three, 265 pounds, “Big Dave,” as he’s known, is as built for hugging as anyone ever was. It’s what he does for a living, in a way. No, hugging doesn’t pay any of his bills; he just lives to do this. By his own accounting, he’s dispensed a half a million hugs while crisscrossing the globe over the past two decades on a series of idiosyncratic — some would say quixotic — missions to dispense goodwill and healing one small, intimate interaction at a time. He’s traversed continents. He’s visited the aftermaths of tragedies — Pulse Nightclub, the Las Vegas shooting — in an effort to show that when kindness seems to have vanished, it hasn’t, really. It’s a quest that was born of the death of a close friend in the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, when giving out hugs was the only thing that made him feel better, that made any sense.
At the end of 2019, Sylvester let me in on big plans he was hatching to mark the 20th anniversary of that tragedy: He would visit the nation of every victim of the Twin Tower attacks and give out hugs to anybody who’d accept one. Those plans, like so many in 2020, were dashed.
The pandemic was rough on Sylvester, 56, who once calculated that he averaged more than 47 hugs and high fives a day. COVID throttled his tactile proclivities down to a few carefully meted-out daps over the course of months.
“I was starving for hugs and high fives,” the deep-voiced Kingsessing native says of the days when he couldn’t slap hands with passing joggers in Rittenhouse or offer an embrace to chance encounters on the street. “I think I had my first high five in July or June [of last year], maybe. I just happened to be downtown — it was a ghost town — and I went for a walk. The doorman from the Ritz, who I would usually walk by and high-five, ran out and high-fived me. He was like, I just need it, man. I got emotional. I realized that this is what we need. Contact.”
That’s why, in November, he did what he’s tended to do in times like these: He hit the road. His mission: Do one good deed in every state. If he couldn’t hug and high-five, he would find some way to bring positivity to the world. He spoke to a yoga class in Maine; he bought pizza for the COVID units at hospitals in Fargo, North Dakota, and Billings, Montana, and on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. He arranged free lunch for an oncologist in Chico, California. Some deeds were planned; many others were improvised. “New Hampshire wouldn’t even let me buy them gas,” he remembers. “I asked six people to let me buy them gas — I was like, that’s an easy get, right? And they were so skittish, like, where is this money coming from? Who are you? I don’t want you to have my information. They were all, like, No, I’m fine. So my good deed for New Hampshire,” he laughs, “was to leave.”
Every trip he’s taken has had its low points: flat tires when he used to do them on a bike; speeding tickets when he began doing them in a car (though Sylvester likes to focus on the people he’s met while fixing those flats, say, or the stereotype-defying interactions he’s had with officers who’ve pulled him over). But arguably the worst moment of this most recent trip came after it was over. He returned to Philly on January 5th and spent the next day watching the Capitol insurrection on TV — essentially, the polar opposite of what he’d spent the prior two months observing and modeling.
It might make a lesser person feel defeated. And indeed, Sylvester has suggested to me that he’s begun to wonder which trip will be his last. Giving hugs and high fives doesn’t make him any money; it’s gotten him good press through the years, but his work hasn’t, thus far, been scalable. “At this point, I’m not going to say I don’t care,” he says of whether there’s a next chapter to his work, “but I am going to say that it is what it is.”
Then he catches himself. “What I’ve decided is, I’m just going to keep going. I’m going to keep going until you see the world that I see,” he tells me as we finish our coffees outside Talula’s Daily. “A world that is full of goodness.”
Maybe that moment is closer than we realize. In the fall of last year, Sylvester submitted an application to the National Day Calendar — the organization whose motto is “Celebrate Every Day” and one of two that formalize things like “National Avocado Day” and “National Scarf Day.” His ask: to declare September 12th “National Hug and High-Five Day.” In May, his application was accepted. Which means that this year, the message and movement he’s spent 20 years building one hug at a time could finally get a lot more amplification.
You probably have a few questions. The first: Is this guy for real?
We’re conditioned to distrust people who seem too good to be true, who give of themselves without getting anything in return. There’s always a catch, right?
I first met Big Dave back in 2007, when a journalist named Mary Wilson wrote about him for the Philadelphia City Paper, where I was an editor. Sylvester had already traversed the U.S. and Africa on bike and was about to embark on a trans-Asian bike trek. He’d made his first bike trip to raise funds for a scholarship to honor Kevin Bowser, his childhood friend, neighbor and mentor who was in the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11th. And then he just kept going.
He blogged his Asia trip for City Paper. He’d bike across America again, then bike across Australia. He was featured on ESPN.com, whose Jim Caple would write the forward to Traveling at the Speed of Life, the book Sylvester self-published in 2012, a collection of his tales.
When Sylvester stopped into the City Paper’s Old City offices back in 2007 to set up his blog, he was so preternaturally positive and effusive that at least one of my colleagues couldn’t quite accept that he was genuine — suspected that there must be something … suspect. (Gen-Xers are nothing if not jaded.) But I’ve kept in touch with him over the years and heard him relate stories of his travels again and again. They’re always different stories, but also the same — accounts of people who, touched by a moment of kindness, break down in tears, share long-held secrets, confide that his quest helped them stay sober, or just smile. Sylvester has likened the feeling he gets from these encounters to that of finding, say, a dollar in the pocket of an old pair of jeans — a harmless little jolt of dopamine. If there was something off about all of this, certainly we’d know it by now.
Still, because this is journalism, I told him that for this story, I was hoping he could put me in touch with people he’d met on his journeys, people who could, you know, account for the other side of the equation — could vouch that these interactions were as positive for them as they were for him.
I spent the next several days being contacted — via email, via text, via phone calls — by Big Dave’s people near and far. Everyone from Shelley in Colorado to Angie in Texas to Jordan in Kentucky to Sameer in Sydney to TJ in Philly has a story about how an encounter with Big Dave is transcendent in the moment but also reverberates. Like a politician, Sylvester has an uncanny ability to remember the people he meets. He checks in with them randomly via text, and vice versa. They become part of his personal mythology, a fact that thrills them as much as it does him. But unlike a politician, Sylvester doesn’t seem to have a self-serving bone in his body. If there’s anything about this that’s not on the up-and up, I’ve yet to discover it.
Another question: How has he done this?
The fact he’s a physical trainer has provided a certain amount of flexibility, as has working for people who get him. Early in Sylvester’s career, his boss at Weston Fitness, Aimee Glocke, accommodated his fluid schedule. Now a professor of Africana studies at Cal State Northridge, Glocke teaches his book to her freshman writing classes.
Sylvester funded his early trips through a combination of his own savings and crowdfunding on his website. He’s worked with sponsors, such as on a 2017 trip funded by Duke Cannon soap. His November expedition was paid in full by a generous benefactor. Working at the Union League, as he has for the past 12 years, puts Sylvester in proximity to some deep-pocketed individuals. One of them put him in touch with Leo Holt, the president of Holt Logistics, the company that runs ports on both sides of the Delaware River. Holt is friends with a brother of Michael Lynch, who was one of the last firefighters seen entering World Trade Center 2. Holt has long supported the Michael Lynch Memorial Foundation as well as other 9/11 charities and was eager to meet with Sylvester.
“If nothing else, he is the most sincere and honest individual I’ve met in a long time,” says Holt. “It wasn’t a difficult decision to say, ‘Dave, rather than piecemeal this activity, give us a number and just get out and do it.”
Neither Holt nor Sylvester will say how much his tour cost, though Sylvester admits to a certain naivete. “I know that if you need, like, five dollars for something, technically, you should ask for 10,” he admits. “But I never do.”
When Sylvester asked Holt what he wanted in return — a hashtag, branding, company or name recognition — Sylvester says, “He was like, ‘Just go do good.’ I was blown away by that.”
“At the end of the day,” says Holt, “there are some things that are worth doing in the same way that there are just some things that are worth learning. Intellectual curiosity has a currency unto itself, and these things do, too. You don’t always have to capitalize on them.”
But none of this answers the big question: Why? Why does Big Dave do this?
Sylvester and his sister, Tracy, grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, the children of Theresa Sylvester, an administrative assistant and part-time teacher for a health-workers’ union, and Samuel Sylvester, a professor of social work at Penn. Dave Sylvester describes a home life where academic excellence and civic engagement were expected; their parents demanded that he and his sister be able to discuss stories from the daily paper each night around the dinner table.
Sylvester says he loved going to school — “I got to talk to people all day” — even if he didn’t exactly excel there. (“The first word I learned to spell was ‘potential’; it was on every report card of my life.”)
From an early age, Sylvester was fascinated with other places and other people. He tells me about the time when, as a sixth- or seventh-grader at Waldron Academy, he heard a radio ad for a seminar in Center City based on Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. “I took the 44 bus from Waldron,” he says. “I’m standing there, and I’m a kid, I didn’t pay for shit. I saw a Black woman go in, and I ran up and said, ‘Oh, that’s my mother, I have to go tell her something.’” Once inside, he snatched up folders and devoured the info. “One of the first things they teach is that when you go to a party, if you introduce yourself and talk to everybody at the party and remember a detail, you’ve just made yourself the key figure in the room, because then you can introduce anybody there to anybody else. That carried me through my whole life.”
This fascination with others comes with a downside. Both Sylvester and his mother recount numerous times in his youth when he’d just wander off. Once, when he was probably no more than four, he simply disappeared at the airport. “My husband just started moving. We didn’t know what direction David went in; we just knew he wasn’t there,” Theresa tells me on the phone from her Kingsessing home one June afternoon. “And then finally, there was an announcement of a lost little boy. I can’t tell you how far away he was from where we were, but it was far. When I finally got my hands on him, the woman he was with probably thought I was going to kiss him. But I hugged him and whispered, ‘I’m going to murder you.’ And he said, ‘I wasn’t lost. I knew where I was.’”
It is, essentially, Big Dave’s mantra. “My mom one time joked that it’s a wonder I wasn’t kidnapped,” he recalls. “I was always talking to strangers.”
“I know why he wasn’t kidnapped,” his mother tells me later. “Nobody was going to put up with his foolishness.”
I ask Sylvester where his hyper-extroversion, his ability (or is it a need?) to always, always see the bright side, comes from. Were his parents like this? Maybe a mentor? He laughs. “My mom will often say, ‘I don’t know how you think this.’” Consider this story from his Central High football days. An offensive lineman, he’d been getting beat repeatedly by an opposing defender, so his coach pulled him from the game. “I was like, ‘Dude, put me back in,’” Sylvester recalls, “and Coach was like, ‘What the fuck for? He’s beating your ass.’ And I said, ‘But it’s a different way every time, and he’s running out of tricks.’ And Coach just started laughing and said, ‘Dave, you’ve got ass-whooping amnesia.’”
I’ve often wondered how Sylvester — a large Black man from Philly who’s spent so much time traveling alone through parts of the country where large Black men are seen as threats — views his place in the broader discussion of race in America. Last summer, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, I asked him point-blank about this. While acknowledging that the way many police view Black men is absolutely a problem, he proceeded to recount tales of hugging his way out of speeding tickets, of a cop helping him change a tire, of a Texas trooper buying him Cokes. As if conceding there’s a problem that can’t be overcome through kindness might violate some internal prime directive. As if that amnesia extended far beyond football.
While the ills of the world seem to run off Sylvester’s back, his life of Riley weighs on at least one person: his mother. On the phone, I ask her what it’s like to be Big Dave’s mom, about those rose-colored glasses that seem fused to his head. She says she often doesn’t hear of his plans until he’s on his way out the door, backpack on and keys in hand. That she’s “learned to not ask a lot of questions and just have faith in fate.” She seems at times confounded that this man, so wide-eyed and trusting, is her progeny.
“He tends to keep his own counsel until his aspirations and visions are fully formed,” she wrote in a wry, loving tribute delivered to a bon-voyage party some years back in which she attempted to detail the “peculiar, idiosyncratic packaging of my son.” “He thinks with his heart and fails to interrupt his dreams with practicalities. He leaves those concerns to the ‘earth’ people, the ones he leaves behind.”
She tells me to ask him about western Virginia, 2008. He was alone, in the rain, on a bike adorned with Obama stickers when a pickup truck pulled up beside him. The driver brandished a gun, fired it into the air, cackled, and sped off. “He called me in such distress about it, and he kept saying — not ‘I’m scared,’ not ‘I’m mad’ — he just kept saying, ‘I don’t understand,’” says Theresa Sylvester. “I felt that as an older person, as an African American person and as his mother, from one of those three categories, I should have been able to pull it together for him. For him to not understand racism, I thought, ‘My God, as old as he is, he’s so naive.’ His bottom-line assessment about people is that they’re wonderful.”
In the version of the pickup-guy-with-gun story in Sylvester’s latest self-published book of essays, One Hug at a Time, his mother talked him down and kept him from abandoning his trek. In her retelling, she absolutely wanted him to come home. She began relating the tale to me as an example of an unqualified bad thing, one even her son couldn’t spin as a positive. But then she remembered what happened next: A man Sylvester had met a few days earlier in eastern Tennessee, a McCain supporter, called him that night, unbidden. Knowing the rain would continue for days, he offered to pick Sylvester up, wherever he was. Big Dave declined the offer but continued the journey, his faith in people restored.
He can recount a day that involved six flat tires but that also included a meaningful connection: “How I chose to look at that day was, without those flats, that precious moment doesn’t happen. How you choose to tell a story and the moments you choose to highlight within that story, that’s everything.”
That’s the essence of everything wonderful about David Sylvester. And it seems that he was born that way. Why does he do what he does? Because that’s just who he’s always been.
Right now, not even Big Dave can control what happens next with his story.
In July, he’s planning to visit Mandan, North Dakota, to receive a proclamation from the National Day Calendar about National Hug and High-Five Day, which will be observed for the first time on September 12th of this year. He plans to spend that day in Washington, D.C., on Embassy Row, hugging people from as many different nations as he can. While out in middle America to receive his proclamation in July, he plans to stage a series of “hug parties” at the geographic centers of North America (Rugby, North Dakota), the United States (Belle Fourche, South Dakota), and the lower 48 (Lebanon, Kansas).
Lots of us laugh at these seemingly randomly chosen designations, but it’s no small feat getting on the National Day Calendar. Alice Anderson, its COO and part owner, tells me the organization receives 20,000 requests for new national days each year and approves between 25 and 30. Through its various platforms, NDC reaches tens of millions of people a day. Teachers across the country look to it for lesson inspiration. And the organization counts 20,000 media sources among its followers. Anderson likes to tell the story of Ellen DeGeneres’s 2018 National Avocado Day stunt, when her producer, Andy Lassner, dressed as a tortilla chip and plunged into a giant pool of guacamole. That’s the ne plus ultra of what’s possible. But the fact is, there are thousands of TV stations and news sites across the country starving for content every day. An uplifting tale of kindness inspired by 9/11, celebrated the day after? It’s not hard to see the potential here.
“We were so touched by his story,” says Anderson. “Everyone here was. What he’s doing is so amazing. He’s just making this country a happier place.”
Now that we’re coming off a year-plus with minimal human contact, when Sylvester’s simple message of kindness could do wonders to heal a nation ailing from so much, it seems that this could be the moment his story really, finally takes off. “Maybe Coca-Cola reads about this and is like, wait a minute,” he muses. Then again, he’s been here before. “There were so many points where I thought this or that was going to make my story break out,” he says. “If this tour is the last one and getting the national day is just a capstone for 20 years, that’s fine. If it’s something that blossoms into something more, I’m fine with that, too. The fact that I was able to travel around the world on the strength of a hug? I’m cool with however it shakes out.”
Which is, of course, the most David Sylvester way possible to look at it.
Published as “The Man Who Hugged the World” in the August 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.