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BELLE FOURCHE | In memory of a friend lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, David Hale Sylvester continues to travel the world, helping people feel better, one hug or high-five at a time.

Sylvester, a personal trainer and motivational speaker from Philadelphia, is bringing his “Big Dave Hugs The World” tour to Belle Fourche, the nation’s geographic heartland if you will, for a Valentine’s Day visit today.

He’ll visit the Belle Fourche Senior Center at 828 Kingsbury St., starting at noon, giving out hugs, or handing out high-fives or fist-bumps to whoever wants one, “whatever it takes to make people smile,” he said.

Sylvester began his quest to give the world a hug as a response to a feeling of helplessness after the loss of a close friend, Kevin Bowser, in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.

Sylvester said his friend worked for the investment firm Marsh & McLennon, whose offices in the World Trade Center took a direct hit when the first hijacked passenger jet struck that fateful morning.

“The plane pretty much went into his floor, so he and his co-workers were incinerated on the spot,” Sylvester said.

Sylvester said he initially held out hope that his friend might be among the thousands of injured, but nothing was ever heard again from him, and no remains were ever identified.

“That left us with no way, nothing to say goodbye to. There wasn’t any closure,” he said.

Sylvester decided to deal with his loss by giving out as many hugs as he could.

He started with a 2002 bicycle tour from Washington State to his hometown of Philadelphia.

Over the years he has also biked internationally, from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa in 2004; Istanbul, Turkey to Beijing, China in 2007.

Other North American tours included San Diego to New York City in 2008, and Minneapolis to New York City in 2011.

In 2015, he pedaled from Sydney to Melbourne in Australia.

Sylvester has also made special trips to other parts of the country that have suffered devastating losses, including the sites of mass shootings in Las Vegas, San Bernadino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla.

Today’s stop in Belle Fourche, however, is inspired by a similar trip to Lebanon, Kan., the geographical center of the lower 48 states, for Valentine’s Day in 2017.

Sylvester figures people here who have been through a cold, snowy winter need another reason to smile,

“I think this is a time that people will appreciate a hug and a high-five, and the effort of my getting there,” he said.

His appearances don’t follow any set format and his visit to the Belle Fourche Senior Center is no exception.

Sometimes it’s just Sylvester carrying a placard made to look like an adhesive name tag with the words “Hello, My Name Is Big Dave” and the hashtag #BigDaveHugsTheWorld.

Other times he’ll give a talk accompanied by a presentation of photos he has taken during 18 years of world travels.

“The one constant is that I’m there smiling,” he said.

Sylvester hopes that his wide smile, sense of humor and engaging personality will help overcome the recent political divisiveness gripping the country that has replaced the unity of the nation, post 9/11.

“The world needs your smile,” he said.

See davidhalesylvester.com, or follow him on Instagram: thehumanhigh5, for more information.

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