John Beck: York’s ‘free hugs guy’

John Beck (Our York Media)

He can still remember the feeling – dripping wet in the rain, laughing with his friend. For a moment, the weight was lifted.

Known by many as “the guy with the ‘free hugs’ sign” in downtown York, John Beck’s gift to others was what saved him from a suffocating depression.

It was summer 2016 when his young cousin drowned in a backyard pool. When her inspiring love of life was lost, it seemed John’s had drifted with her.

He only got out of bed to go to work.

“I was stuck in a funk I had never experienced before, and it felt like I’d never get out of it,” he says.

It was on the Internet that John learned about Ken E. Nwadike Jr., better known as the “free hugs guy.”

“It isn’t really about me anymore. The community needs this more than I do.”

As a peace activist and founder of the Free Hugs Project, Nwadike has traveled the country sharing his journey from homelessness to a living symbol of peace.

And seeing Nwadike turn angry protesters into peaceful huggers felt like the moment that things could be different for John.

With friend and community activist Carla Christopher, they made signs at what used to be New Grounds Roasting Company on West Market Street and stood on the sidewalk to deliver their own hugs to people in York.

Within an hour, they gave out more than 70 hugs. The late afternoon thunderstorm that pummeled them didn’t stop them either – and people jumped out of their cars to exchange a warm embrace.

Soaking wet, John was overcome with a sense of community, compassion, peace and understanding.

“I thought doing this would make me feel better,” John says. “But it isn’t really about me anymore. The community needs this more than I do.”

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