Teen brings a billion free hugs to fair

Surrounded by people who make a living by drawing attention, high school student Stephen Luck was getting all of it.

After all, it was hard to miss the sign two friends were holding over Stephen's head: “Free hugs.”

Plus, there was the lanky 17-year-old's attire: deliberately mismatched mustard-colored pants, hand-knit muffler scarf, green T-shirt and stylishly mussed hair.

Why offer free hugs?

“Because it's fun, and I like hugs,” he said, opening his arms as a middle-age woman approached. “Everybody likes hugs.”

Whimsy can be a powerful force. A girl in Stephen's group couldn't help herself. She broke from the pack and leaped at him so eagerly that he staggered. That made 10. Then an elderly woman walking by stopped and changed course. She was number 11.

What's the target?

“I'm hoping for a billion.”

Stephen is the very picture of a worldly kid, the kind you see in cutting-edge ads or on MTV doing something far too hip to happen off-camera. But he's not from New York, or Seattle or Miami.

He and his friends were on a field trip from South Stanly High School, and somehow, just like on TV, their grownup escorts weren't around.

The fair's most free-spirited visitor Tuesday, it turned out, had lived his whole life in the small town of Norwood, where his father has hopes and worries that are familiar to many parents.

“We live in a small town with absolutely nothing to do,” Ronnie Luck said in a telephone interview from Stanly County.

“I guess that has been a good thing, in a way, because maybe it has kept him from getting in trouble. He spends so much time on the computer, though, that I just worry.”